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PV module recycling: More green jobs, less environmental burden

March 19, 2021 PV InfoLink


Reclaim PV Recycling, an Australia-based company, established the country’s first large-scale solar PV waste recycling plant in Adelaide, Australia in February, in response to the increasing installed PV capacity and the resultant issues regarding module decommissioning and waste.

According to Peter Majewski, a scholar from the University of South Australia, Australia is projected to see more than 100,000 tons of waste PV modules by 2035. New South Wales government predicts the state to produce 3,000 to 10,000 tons of decommissioned PV modules and energy storage devices by 2025, and the figure will soar to 40,000 to 71,000 tons by 2035.      

Solar PV module recycling is a global issue. Currently, only few countries have established regulations on PV waste management, and PV module recyclers are not many either. China began to see large volume of PV installations in the 2010s and it would have to manage these assets at the end of their lifespan in 2030. However, the country has not set up any unified regulatory framework supporting PV waste management so far. Moreover, high recycling costs of modules in China affect manufacturers’ unwillingness to pay. 

The United States has yet to regulate PV recycling process at a national level. First Solar, a thin-film manufacturer, is the only one providing end-of-life module recycling service. However, except for the aluminum frame, there are no proper methods for the recovery of silver, silicon, and other materials from modules.

The PV module recycling issue is looming. According to data from the International Energy Association (IEA), over 8 million tons of modules will be reaching the end of their life cycle, damaged, or decommissioned by 2030. The solar PV industry needs to tackle the issue in order to be a genuine benefit to the environment.

Challenges aside, the huge amount of PV waste could create new opportunities within the economy. PV modules are made up of glass (75%), polymer (10%), aluminum (8%), silicon (5%), and copper (1%), as well as small quantities of silver, tin, and lead.

Tin and lead, if not being processed properly, will lead to soil and groundwater contamination and threaten public health. Copper, silver, and silicon, on the other hand, are worth recycling. If a proper recycling infrastructure can be established to recover these valuable metals, solar PV recycling market would see continued growth.



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