Recycling solar panels is expected to become cheaper and more accessible with Australia’s leading recycler expanding its model to include drop-off points in all states.
Solar uptake has exploded in Australia over the past two decades as the race to reduce emissions continues and electricity prices climb.
According to the latest data from Australia PV Institute, Australia has over 2.2 million solar installations, with a combined capacity of over 13.9 gigawatts.
With demand growing and those installed at the turn of the millennium expected to reach the end of their natural lifespan by around 2030, recycling is a major concern.
Clive Fleming is the director of Adelaide based recycling company Reclaim PV – believed to be the only dedicated photovoltaic recycler in Australia.
He says the company recycles 90 per cent of materials in a panel and that Australia is ahead of the game compared to the rest of the world on PV recycling.
“Europe started recycling solar panels about 10 years before [Australia] but that only happened because they had a problem and they had to solve it quickly,” he said.
“We are ahead of other countries because we are doing it before the problem is too big.”
Reclaim PV, which started in 2014, currently works on a collection system. The company will pick up solar panels from anywhere in Australia for recycling.
However, drop-off points are expected to be established right across the country by the end of this year, breaking down cost barriers and encouraging recycling by putting options in sight.
“The major challenge really is the network of collection points and logistics that go along with it,” Fleming says.
“We get thousands of panels in every week and we are expecting that to grow substantially once we put out our drop off options.”
The company is also advancing their data collection.
“Recycling is more than just collecting panels,” Fleming says. “What we are looking to do is collect data along the way on everything from why they might have failed early to when they were installed, how they were installed and the conditions they were subject to.”
“At the moment the majority of panels are being recycled due to failings that come back to the transport and handling stage.
“If we can collect data on how they were transported, we can manage that process better.
“We are also looking at the different results we are getting with different types of panels, those results can help us feed information back to manufacturers to encourage them to use different compounds to ease the recycling process and ultimately produce a better product.”
Essentially, the company is future proofing the recycling process, Fleming says.
“Collecting data that can be used in five to 10 years is going to make it easier to recycle at the end point, because we want to avoid the need to recycle as much as possible.”
More than 100,000 tonnes of solar panels are expected to enter Australia’s waste stream by 2035. Much of that will head straight to landfill unless Australia acts swiftly.
Solar panels contain potentially hazardous materials
Victoria is the only state to commit to banning solar panels from landfill, and despite the government working on a national-strategy, Fleming says significant barriers to solar panels recycling remain.
Predominantly made from glass, polymer and aluminium, the panels may also contain potentially hazardous materials such as lead, copper and zinc.
“Cost is a huge barrier for everyone when it comes to recycling. People don’t realise when you get your bins taken away on the street there is a whole system operating behind the scenes that costs money – people think it is free. It is the same with recycling solar panels,” Fleming says.
“The other barrier would be the lack of information available on the recycling options.”
Regarding technology and adaptability, however, Australia is at the forefront, Mr Fleming says.
“Nearly everything can be recycled at some point and that includes solar panels – if they can’t then that needs to be looked at,” he said.
“Within Australia we have a different mentality towards recycling and the environment. People have proven to adapt to recycling quite easily as long as it is feasible and accessible, but in other countries there is less opportunity because the mentality is different.”
Reclaim PV has developed a unique recycling technology that extracts elements through a thermal process.
“The way we were going to do it at the beginning, and the way it is done in many parts of Europe is they get the panels, take the frames off and crush them and it’s quite noisy. It would have cost a couple of million dollars to set up and doesn’t provide the opportunity to reclaim the cells and whole objects or shards of glass – there is less finesse with that process,” he says.
“Our process means we can actually utilise the elements we are recovering rather than having to process them all over again.”
It’s an opportunity, not a looming crisis
Australia has at least 10 years before mountains of solar panels are expected to reach their expiry date, something Fleming sees as an opportunity rather than a crisis.
A 2016 report by the International Energy Agency and the International Renewable Energy Agency found recoverable materials from solar panel waste had a potential value of nearly $US15 billion by 2050.
“If you know there is a problem coming and you do nothing then there will be a problem, but we have had time to see it, assess it and prepare for it,” Fleming says.
“I saw this problem six or seven years ago and at the time we went to the government to talk about options, which sparked some action.
“But now there are more people looking at the problem all around Australia and even though it is a problem that is inevitable, I see it as an opportunity for more jobs, gaining new materials and taking pressure off mining, and creating a better environmental solution to landfill moving forward.”