The popularity of solar in Australia is soaring. As of 30 June 2019 over 2.15 million Australian households had installed solar systems. 

The country now has the highest uptake of solar globally.

Although this booming industry appears to be a step in the right direction for the environment, it may lead to Australia’s next waste crisis.

The issue with solar 

Solar PV (photovoltaic) panels generally have a life expectancy between 15 and 35 years. This begs the question: what happens to these panels once they reach the end of their life?

Australia has no laws regulating the solar industry’s waste. And noone’s currently collecting data on the issue, making it difficult to determine the number of solar panels actually ending up in landfill. As most solar panels have only been installed in the last decade, the waste stream does not appear to be too dramatic just yet.

However, looking ahead to 2025, solar waste is thought to be a significant issue. Experts predict that by 2050 there will be a whopping 1,500 kilotons of waste from retired solar panels (this is equivalent to 1,500,000,000 kilograms). 

Many Australians have opted for solar PV systems in their home in order to have a more meaningful impact on our planet. If you’re one of these people – good job. Solar PV systems can have a huge impact on the environment as the process of converting sunlight into electricity via PV systems produces zero greenhouse gas emissions. Which in turn reduces owners’ overall carbon footprint. Although costly to begin with, once paid for solar systems can also save owners money through generating free electricity.

There are lots of websites, like Energy Made Easy, which can help you calculate your own energy consumption and whether solar may be a good option for you. 

However, before you get too excited about the benefits of solar, these panels aren’t quite as green as you may think.

Not only does the manufacturing process of these solar systems produce greenhouse gas emissions but the panels themselves also contain toxic chemicals such as lead, polyvinyl fluoride, cadmium telluride and copper indium selenide. These hazardous chemicals are released during the manufacture and after the disposal of solar panels. Such chemicals can potentially lead to burns on the skin, harmful air pollutants which can increase rates of lung disease and, if ending up in water systems, can further harm human and environmental health.

Trash is Treasure 

Although these toxic time-bombs certainly have brought about clear economic and environmental benefits, critics argue that the government needs to act swiftly if they wish to address this looming waste crisis and keep solar panels out of landfill. 

Solar panels contain valuable resources such as glass, metals, lithium, ruthenium, tellurium, lead and indium. Recycling this waste would save such resources for future use, as well as reducing the risks of leaking toxic chemicals. Sounds like a no-brainer right? However, currently only one facility in the whole of Australia are recycling solar panels. 

Reclaim PV, based in Adelaide, is the only company who currently recycles these panels. Although they haven’t said a lot publicly over the last few years (they’re probably too busy recycling), the facility is reported to recycle an incredible 50,000 solar panels a year. 

At present Australian businesses and consumers have little incentive to improve and innovate the recycling rate. Australia has a Product Stewardship Act to encourage businesses to take responsibility for their products, from the start to the end of their lifecycle. Such schemes aim to keep waste out of landfills and back into the productive economy. Under this framework there are three levels of management: mandatory, co-regulatory (joint industry and government delivery) and voluntary.

However, currently there are no mandatory requirements, meaning companies are largely encouraged to do the right thing rather than required to do so. 

Sustainability Victoria is leading a national project examining PV systems and working towards developing stewardship programs to aid in managing these products’ end-of-life. Given the recent e-waste ban in Victoria, products like battery storage, inverters and solar panels can no longer be dumped in landfill. Meaning we need to rapidly develop ways to effectively recycle such products if we wish to stay on top of the waste. 

What we can do

Although government legislation does play a large role in this looming waste crisis, there are options that consumers can pursue too. 

It is important when selecting solar PV systems to be aware of the pitfalls and actively opt for companies who demonstrate a true commitment to the environment through demonstrating how they intend to deal with their products at the end of their life. In doing so we can recover more materials and achieve higher circulation of recovered resources.

If you’re updating your solar PV system and your panels have not yet reached the end of their life, these panels can be reused. Consider selling or giving away these solar panels on eBay or Gumtree. While they will not be certified for new on-grid systems, they can be used in off-grid systems.

If reusing isn’t an option, try recycling. 

Reclaim PV Recycling offer nationwide mono and polycrystalline PV panel collection via a manufacturer take back program. 

Reclaim is also currently working towards expanding their recovery services for all end-of-life panels which can be used by both installers and consumers. Their website has more information about nearest drop-off points and arranged pick ups. At least one collection centre is planned per major Australian city. 

Australia’s future

Solar panels present a great opportunity for Australia but if we can’t sustainably dispose of them they also pose a great problem. 

As China is no longer accepting Australia’s waste for recycling, we need to rapidly develop a domestic recycling industry. Which will in turn not only promote a green economy but also provide numerous employment opportunities. 

The solar panel waste problem should not be a surprise to any of us. In fact, like many of Australia’s other waste issues, it has been coming for some time. In light of our climate crisis, we can not afford to ignore this problem.