solar panel recycling

Recycling solar panels in 2018

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Solar panels have a lifetime of about 30 years. With the increasing number of solar panels being sold and installed in the United States each year, it’s only a matter of time before high volumes of silicon solar panels are at the end of their useful life and have to be disposed of. Solar panel recycling is still at a very early stage, but as the market continues to grow, it will have an important part to play in the solar industry.

Solar panel recycling is important for the future of solar

Solar energy is inexpensive and environmentally friendly – until your solar panels have reached the end of their lifetime. After about 30 years, many crystalline silicon solar panels will start having significant dips in energy production and it may be time to replace them or dispose of them entirely.

Like any manufactured product, disposing of solar panels is hardly environmentally friendly. Heavy metals like cadmium and lead are found in solar cells, which can harm the natural environment if they are not recycled or disposed of properly. Additionally, solar panels that are carelessly thrown away can end up in large landfills.

Besides environmental protection, recycling solar panels will be economically impactful as well. Some of the rare elements in photovoltaic (PV) cells like gallium and indium are being depleted from the environment over time. If we were able to recover those elements, we can conserve the limited amount available on earth and continue to use them for solar panels and other products. Furthermore, a 2016 study by the International Renewable Agency (IRENA) estimated that $15 billion could be recovered from recycling solar modules by the year 2050.

solar panel recycling

When do solar panels need to be recycled?

With a lifetime of about 30 years on average, crystalline silicon solar panels don’t become obsolete very quickly. However, given the rapid expansion of the solar industry, the number of solar panels needing to be recycled or disposed of in the coming years will continue to increase. More and more panels will reach the end of their life each year, and even now, old solar panels are beginning to become a problem.

What parts of solar panels can be recycled?

Recycling solar panels can only be effective if the materials used to build them are able to be used again, 30 or more years later. Solar panels are made from several components, including:

  • Silicon solar cells
  • Metal framing
  • Glass sheets
  • Wires
  • Plexiglas

Right away, it’s clear that many of the core components of solar panels can be recycled on their own. Metal, glass, and wiring can all be recycled and reused. Silicon cells, the component that is most essential to producing electricity, are a slightly different story. While silicon wafers are not recyclable like glass and plastic are, some specialty recycling companies are able to reuse silicon cells by melting them down and reclaiming the silicon and various metals.

The difficulty with recycling solar panels isn’t that the materials they are made from are hard to recycle; rather, it’s that they are constructed from many parts all used together in one product. Separating those materials and recycling them each in a unique way is a complex and potentially expensive process.

Solar panel recycling options

What are the current options for recycling your old solar panels? Solar panels have traditionally been recycled at general purpose glass recycling facilities, where the metal frames and glass parts are salvaged but the remaining parts are disposed of or burned. Nowadays, there are a few organizations working to make solar panel recycling both complete and mainstream:


Unlike the U.S., Europe has a developed solar market. Due to government regulations, European solar panel owners must recycle their panels once they are done using them. This has created a market for panel recyclers, one of which is Veolia.

Veolia partners with the non-profit PV Cycle in Europe to collect and recycle solar panels. They opened their first recycling plant in 2018, where robots separate glass, silicon, plastics, and metals from solar panels.

Recycle PV

One company looking to bring solar recycling to the U.S. is Recycle PV. Because of the lack of governmental solar recycling requirements, the company has trouble operating on a wide scale locally. Despite this, Recycle PV is partnering with PV Cycle to help move U.S. panels to recycling facilities in Europe. While currently only a small operation compared to some European panel recycling efforts, groups like Recycle PV will almost definitely see the demand for their recycling services grow over the next several years.

Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA)

SEIA has a PV Recycling Working Group that chooses recycling partners offering benefits to SEIA members. These partners give special pricing to the SEIA members, and in exchange, recycle their solar panels at special facilities. An example of a SEIA recycling partner is the company Cleanlites. Cleanlites operates recycling facilities that aren’t dedicated only to solar but can handle recycling panels and other solar equipment.

Manufacturer recycling

Another example of solar recycling efforts comes from manufacturers. Companies like SunPower and First Solar run global recycling programs for their customers, allowing them to return old solar panels (often through groups like PV Cycle) to the manufacturer to be recycled or repurposed.

Solar panels are good for the environment, and recycling is coming

While solar panel recycling isn’t widely available in the U.S. for all of the components in solar panels, there’s still a little time before the number of panels needing to be recycled gets too high. Groups like SEIA and Recycle PV are doing important groundwork for the industry, but there’s more to do in years to come.

Solar panel recycling may not be widespread, but solar energy is still a great financial investment that is environmentally friendly as well. By going solar now, you can cut your electric bill and start saving right away. Sign up for the EnergySage Solar Marketplace to receive free quotes from our network of qualified, pre-vetted installers so you can start the process of going solar.

solar panel recycling

5 thoughts on “Recycling solar panels in 2018

  1. Jeff Brown

    Hi Jacob

    I have some Great news to share! Solar Pioneer Sam Vanderhoof has built a PV recycling plant in Tuscon AZ and it is up and running, In the last couple weeks Peter Beadle and myself, both old solar guys 3 decades each plus have joined him in his efforts.
    Doing my due diligence I am blown away of the need for this to prevent in the near future billions of pounds of our “Green” technology each year ending up in landfills.

    I too have been guilty simply assuming PV was a small sin to simply toss into dumpsters out of convenience just as computers and monitors. I never had anyone in our industry push recycling especially due to the fact today in California where I am they are listed as “Hazardous Waste” not Universal as computers are.

    For a follow up article it would be great to have EnergySage do a follow up article on RecyclePV,Solar and how several solar veterans are tackling this issue.
    It is a fact over 90% of day to day solar contractors are tossing modules in dumpsters. Some have them stacking up in their warehouse or using the very popular method of stacking them up outside near the dumpsters of their building next to the used pallets only to watch them simply go away.

    This issue is larger than us and we need our solar associations and groups as you to help educate our industry and step up ensuring every pv module at end of life is recycled, Used PV Mods are re purposed and even those with say a bad diode are repaired then re-purposed,


    Jeff Brown

  2. Brady Rose

    How much of the energy produced by panels, on a watt / dollar basis, prior to subsidization, will be consumed through the processes needed to recycle them? Melting glass, electro-winning, ball milling, and chemical separation are all VERY energy intensive processes. Given that solar panels are already only about as profitable as the subsidies paid for by tax payers, and that likely most of the energy used to produce them, let alone recycle them do not come from solar energy. I can’t imagine that the true end cost of properly recycling them doesn’t completely bottom out their economic feasibility. More than likely, much of them will end up in the landfill and the efforts to avert environmental disaster will become the causes of such.

  3. Marc Fontana

    It’s nice to know that solar PV modules can potentially be recycled. But what do I do with old pv panels today? If a homeowner living in the San Francisco Bay area has solar modules they want to dispose of, where can they take them? I searched online and came up empty. California does not allow disposing of PV modules in landfills. Frankly, I’m surprised there isn’t a recycling fee imposed on PV modules like there is for LCD displays and TV’S.

  4. Brian

    The easiest way I have heard of to recycle solar panels is as follows.

    Put them in a pyrolysis sealed oven with no oxygen. Heat them till all the plastic and organics have evaporated or turned to char.
    Vibrate the panels and they fall apart with the organics glues.
    Recycle the glass which is about 90% of the mass of the panels, and the aluminum with not all panels have. Folks have also refinished the cells to updated performance. It takes half as much energy to make a solar panels from recycled parts as new. The silver is also recycled.

    96% of solar panels contain ZERO Cadmium, can we stop with this meme? The toxic CdTe panels are the sole reason 96% solar panels which are not toxic are considered toxic by some govs. CdTe and any other toxic solar panels should have a mandatory label.

    The question I have is, are solar panels uses lead free solder or not?

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