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  • Writer's pictureGreen Clean Solar

Advancing a Circular Economy - the Solar Industry's Approach to Waste Reduction and Recycling

Updated: May 18

The renewable energy industry increasingly recognizes the need to minimize waste to achieve sustainability. However, discussions often focus on recycling solar panels at the end of their life cycle, neglecting the substantial waste generated during construction. This early-stage waste includes damaged solar modules, wooden pallets, crates, cardboard, and hardware such as racks, bolts, nuts, and leftover cables. Addressing this waste is challenging due to a need for more awareness, limited recycling options, and insufficient regulations and solutions.

Enhancing solar waste management during construction

Collaborating with manufacturers to establish recycling programs and use recyclable materials is essential to effectively tackling solar waste. Proactive planning involves identifying recyclable materials, researching local recycling facilities, and understanding specific recycling requirements. Budgeting for recycling can lead to cost savings, and partnering with local recycling specialists can enhance waste reduction. For instance, wooden crates and pallets can be crushed to save hauling costs and landfill space.

Misconceptions about solar panel toxicity

A common misconception is that all solar panels are toxic. This needs to be more accurate. During a tour of a global industry-leading solar plant in Florida, it was evident that the only categorically toxic substance was the minute soldering material containing trace amounts of lead. Different manufacturers use various processes, and some, like First Solar, have programs to recover and reuse these materials in new panels. The majority of solar panels are not toxic and can be handled safely.

The expanding solar industry and its waste obligations

As solar energy production increases, the industry must address the waste from panels and installation by-products. The first wave of solar panels, with 20-35 years lifespans, is reaching its end-of-life (EOL) phase. This early EOL can result from shipping or installation breakage, manufacturing defects, extreme weather, and early upgrades. Cost-effective recycling solutions and waste management protocols are needed, particularly for utility-scale projects with higher rates of broken panels.

Global efforts in solar panel recycling

The European Union (EU) leads the way in solar panel recycling with the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations, requiring 85% collection and 80% recycling of PV panel materials. Other countries, including China, the U.S., and Australia, are following suit. China's government is developing policies to address renewable energy waste, exploring cross-sector utilization of recovered materials. 

Australia is also working on regional efforts to manage solar panel waste effectively.

Battery recycling challenges

Another growing concern is the disposal of lithium-ion batteries used in large-scale energy storage systems. These batteries contain hazardous components like cobalt, nickel, manganese, and electrolyte chemicals, necessitating careful disposal. The recycling process involves disassembling battery modules, labeling them according to regulations, and transporting them to disposal facilities. Handling these batteries using best practices is crucial to prevent safety risks, such as thermal runaway.

Streamlining solar equipment packaging

Manufacturers can significantly impact waste reduction by optimizing packaging materials. Simplifying packaging using fewer materials and reusable solutions can make recycling more efficient. For instance, solvent-based construction adhesives can replace metal nails in pallets, simplifying the recycling process. Reducing empty space in packaging lowers freight costs and saves space during trash hauls.

Collaborative efforts for sustainable packaging

Engaging suppliers to find sustainable packaging solutions is vital. An increasing demand for recyclable packaging will drive innovation and improve recycling efforts. Manufacturers proactively working with suppliers to optimize their supply chain can create upstream changes for a more sustainable and circular solar industry.

Aluminum and steel recycling in the solar sector

The solar industry heavily relies on aluminum and steel, which are highly recyclable. Thanks to continuous recycling, approximately 75% of all aluminum produced is still in use today. However, the industry must encourage more recycling to meet the increasing demand for aluminum. Implementing a waste action plan before projects commence can help divert aluminum from landfills and put it back into the recycling system.

Cardboard recycling for solar installations

Large solar installation projects generate significant amounts of cardboard waste from shipping materials. Recycling cardboard offers environmental benefits, such as reduced energy consumption and emissions. Companies can track waste reduction metrics in their Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting. Handling cardboard on-site can result in cost savings and reduce Scope 3 emissions. Additionally, the large quantities of cardboard generated can be sold to recyclers for profit.

The solar industry's move towards a circular economy is crucial for sustainable growth. The industry can significantly reduce its environmental impact by addressing waste during the construction phase, dispelling misconceptions about panel toxicity, and improving recycling processes for panels and batteries. Collaborative efforts with manufacturers and suppliers to optimize packaging and recycling practices will further promote sustainability. The continued focus on recycling aluminum, steel, and cardboard will ensure that the solar industry remains a leader in waste reduction and environmental responsibility.

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