THIS STORY ORIGINALLY appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Solar panels are an increasingly important source of renewable power that will play an essential role in fighting climate change. They are also complex pieces of technology that become big, bulky sheets of electronic waste at the end of their lives—and right now, most of the world doesn’t have a plan for dealing with that.
But we’ll need to develop one soon, because the solar e-waste glut is coming. By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life, and that the world will be generating about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually. While the latter number is a small fraction of the total e-waste humanity produces each year, standard electronics recycling methods don’t cut it for solar panels. Recovering the most valuable materials from one, including silver and silicon, requires bespoke recycling solutions. And if we fail to develop those solutions along with policies that support their widespread adoption, we already know what will happen.
“If we don’t mandate recycling, many of the modules will go to landfill,” said Arizona State University solar researcher Meng Tao, who recently authored a review paper on recycling silicon solar panels, which comprise 95 percent of the solar market.
Solar panels are composed of photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert sunlight to electricity. When these panels enter landfills, valuable resources go to waste. And because solar panels contain toxic materials like lead that can leach out as they break down, landfilling also creates new environmental hazards.
Most solar manufacturers claim their panels will last for about 25 years, and the world didn’t start deploying solar widely until the early 2000s. As a result, a fairly small number of panels are being decommissioned today. PV Cycle, a nonprofit dedicated to solar panel take-back and recycling, collects several thousand tons of solar e-waste across the European Union each year, according to director Jan Clyncke. That figure includes solar panels that have reached the end of their life but also those that were decommissioned early because they were damaged during a storm, had some sort of manufacturing defect, or got replaced with a newer, more efficient model.