• Emilie O'Leary

How Does California Keep Solar Panels out of Landfills?


The United States aims to reduce greenhouse gas pollution levels 50-52% by 2030. As ambitious climate legislation moves forward into action, The Solar Industry will play a monumental role in achieving these sizeable decarbonization goals.


We may be looking into a solar future that could power more than 40% of the electrical demand in the U.S. “Solar can play a synergistic role across various sectors including industry, transportation, and agriculture...” Kristen Ardani, NREL Researcher.


We’re standing at a monumental moment in the U.S. that the entire Solar Industry will support. With great opportunity comes great responsibility. We’re looking to California as a leader that has already implemented huge shifts toward solar and has adopted legislation to encourage solar panel material recovery, prohibiting solar panels from going to landfills.


California is a leader in solar adoption and EOL


California continues to be a responsible leader in clean energy, investing massively in solar power and proactively developing legislation prohibiting solar panels from going to landfills. One landfill team at Orange County's Prima Deshecha told us, "it's illegal." Even better, our CEO, Emilie Oxel O'Leary, visited a handful of landfills in Southern California and spoke with staff to see if they ever let panels get dumped in the landfill. The answer was a definitive "NO." Also, "no way, they are not allowed," and "panels can't go in the landfill." So she went out to see for herself by going to the actual dumpsites to see if there was any evidence of even just one panel being tossed in. Emilie saw zero evidence at any sites she visited of solar panel dumping, as claimed in a recent LA Times article with a graphic headline and an illustrated graphic portraying a pile-up. That's not to say that this isn't the case in other states where laws don't technically exist. However, it hasn't proven to be true for California, our leader in solar.


When speaking to staff at the Deshecha site, they said panels were sent to Arizona for recycling. This indicates that closer facilities would be helpful for the process, but companies are not simply dumping them. Instead, materials are recovered intentionally, and dumping them in a landfill is just not even an option.



Since 2006, California, in particular, has seen rapid growth in solar photovoltaic (PV) panels as homes, businesses, schools, farms, utilities, and many companies increasingly generate electricity with solar. California's adoption of solar power contributes to economic growth, air pollution reduction, fossil fuels reduction, healthier air, and forward momentum for residents.


Solar Waste Management of large-scale projects

Solar waste resulting from the commissioning and decommissioning of a solar site is an important subject that the solar industry is starting to take very seriously. We support those EPCs and utility companies that are committed to managing and diverting any solar waste on sites appropriately, including packaging materials, not just the panels and racking themselves.


One of the biggest challenges for installers has been finding aftermarket solutions that allow them to be proactive in diverting their solar waste from landfills as easily as possible. We've been able to work with those companies and save them time and money on getting their site cleaned and cleared, with materials being diverted from landfills wherever possible.


"It's empowering to stand back and look at a ready-to-commission site that was installed beautifully, knowing the waste generated from the project was prioritized to be reused, repurposed, recycled, or upcycled and diverted from the landfill at every possible step. You pass that waste diversion report along to the client, and getting to see the respect and delight on their faces is gratifying. It truly sets you apart," professed Emilie Oxel O'Leary.


Keeping our Environment Clean

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.


As we work to green the industry even more by improving EOL materials and the entire process, it's important to remember that we are an evolving, ready-to-adapt group. California consistently takes the lead and is the country's environmental test case, leading with legislation geared toward protecting air, water, and other environmental protections.


California's new rule for EOL panel management went into effect in January 2021. This law made managing and diverting decommissioned solar panels more accessible and more economically feasible. Californians knew if they added solar panels to its universal waste program, this would promote solar panel recycling and reuse and attempt to keep them out of landfills.


"Once again, California is leading the way on the safe handling of hazardous waste," said Dr. Meredith Williams, Director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control. "This streamlined and easy-to-understand end-of-life system is another great step forward in our state's efforts to put environmental protection first – both for the health and safety of our people and natural resources."


It's actually at California landfills where we see some proof that the legislative waste management moves have been a success. These less restrictive regulations allow for a more streamlined process and management and diversion for decommissioned solar panels while continuing to have restrictions on lead, cadmium, and selenium.



Addressing Myths & Facts on Panel Recycling

Do solar panels contain selenium and cadmium?

It's important to be transparent about what improvements can be made in our industry. If it's one thing that keeps our team excited, it's adding even more green and clean to the solar industry with solar waste diversion management efforts. And once a solar panel has been reused, refurbished, and needs a plan for EOL, it's our duty to make sure those materials get recovered. However, with all the opinion pieces on panel toxicity, we thought it was a great time to share some facts on solar panel toxicity. Here are some facts to clear up any accidental misinformation.

Fact. The most common type of solar panel should be considered safe.

Fact. Very few (less than 5%) solar panels are made with thin-film cadmium telluride (CdTe). One of those manufacturers is First Solar, which leads their producer responsibility program and recycles their EOL panels into new panels, recovering the materials, so they don't end up in landfills.

Fact. Some laws limit toxins in some electronics, but solar panels are currently excluded.

Fact. Neither lead nor Cr6+ will be present in a large enough amount to pose a health hazard.

Fact. Currently, photovoltaic panels are exempted from the RoHS standards in the EU and California. Perhaps the biggest challenge for solar panel manufacturers is to use lead-free solder, which is available but can be difficult to make as durable as lead solder. Still, some manufacturers have voluntarily met these standards, such as Panasonic and SunPower.

Fact. With proper lifecycle handling, CdTe solar panels can be managed and kept from landfills.

Fact. Solar panel recycling is an industry that is growing and will become significant and solidified over the next decade or two.

Fact. Solar panels keep toxic materials like mercury out of our environment, as 42% of mercury pollution comes from coal-fired power plants.

When we hear solar panels are toxic and risk contaminating landfills and water streams, it's important to understand this is not black and white. To the question, do solar panels contain selenium and cadmium? Well, the answer is that most do not. Currently, 95% of solar panels are crystalline silicon, which does not contain any selenium or cadmium; this figure accounts for the global market. Contrary to any misbeliefs, solar panels do not contain huge amounts of heavy metals.


What some panels may contain, in small amounts, are silver and lead. Only 5% of the world solar panels market contains cadmium or CdTe solar cells. The traces of lead found is due to the soldering of the electrical components, and the exciting news is lead for soldering is due to be phased out of the solar supply chains. The amount of silver that is classified as hazardous, and the lead from soldering found in solar panels, amounts to the levels found in our household electronics, such as flat-screen televisions, which are considered e-waste.


What is important to note is these metals that are part of the actual solar panel do not leak out and expose the environment. E-waste is a lot easier and more practical to dispose of than universal waste, offering more accessible ways to recycle. Seeing that they have the same levels, if solar panels fell under e-waste, we would see a lot more promotion of recycling panels.


How did California use Universal Waste designation for diverting solar panels from landfills?

In January 2021, California made decommissioned solar panels along with batteries, electronic devices, mercury-containing equipment, lamps, cathode ray tubes, and aerosol cans regulated like other universal waste. This makes the process of handling and recycling doable, making recycling and waste diversion achievable.

Using "Take-it-Back Partner" programs and universal waste destination facilities, California has made it easier for individuals and businesses to divert solar panels and encourage more recycling and reuse.


Handling of decommissioned solar panels in California

California is handling decommissioned panels with clear regulations that require notification and annual reporting to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. In addition to designating PVs as universal waste, handlers are required to train employees on recordkeeping, safe handling during transport, and protocol to prevent breakage. California prohibits universal waste handlers from using and applying chemicals, water, and excessive heat to solar panels.


Since the EPA approved changes to the California universal waste program, the Golden State is allowed to include solar panels in its universal waste regulations. Where California solar panels are not going is in landfills. In fact, since California regulates solar panels as universal waste, recycling, reusing, and refurbishing are more attainable. The financial burden is lightened and won't cripple businesses when they need to store their panels in order to save up for a recycling batch (when deemed "hazardous," which most are not, they cannot be stored for later management by solar companies). It's important to highlight that the solar industry is always finding ways to make an already smart, sustainable industry greener, ensuring toxic heavy metals and cadmium do not enter landfills or accidently contaminate groundwater, creating adverse environmental effects.


What we can learn from California

With will and legislative investment, we can create panel recycling legislation across the nation. Almost 100% of solar panel materials are recyclable or reusable. This is important to address since this brings about new environmental opportunities from decommissioned solar panels. As the Green Clean Solar team is dedicated to cleaning up solar sites, finding and creating opportunities to make end-of-life panels ever more valuable is essential.


California leads on EOL rules, and as their regulations mature, they're expected to be the model which other states adopt. Ultimately it's anticipated that the Environmental Protection Agency will adopt a similar Universal Waste Rule designation to include solar panels and require specific handling and recycling.


Solar Panel Recycling Facts to Know

We invite journalists, policymakers, and industry professionals to use Green Clean Solar as a resource for boots-on-the-ground information. Our team actually shows up to sites to collect panels for recycling. Here's what we know to be true from our experience:



Fact. Recycling technologies are being used to extract and reuse over 80% of the solar module. “If fully injected back into the economy, the value of the recovered material [from used solar panels] could exceed USD 15 billion by 2050.”




Fact. Only 5% of the world solar panels market contains cadmium or CdTe solar cells (U.S. Department of Energy (DOE))

Fact.Lead for soldering is expected to be phased out of the solar supply chain

Fact.By 2026, solar manufacturers plan to reduce the use of lead-based solder to less than 50% of panels (pv-manufacturing.org)

Fact.The majority of Solar Panels are NOT toxic waste

Fact.Manufacturers are also working to improve materials reuse and recycling to mitigate concerns about toxicity and materials scarcity (energy.gov)

Fact.By weight, 80% of a solar panel is glass and aluminum, which is easy to recycle

Fact.Our customers care so much about recycling that they ask for proof that their panels and materials will be reused, recycled, and diverted in the most sustainable way

Fact.Cutting-edge environmental policies that promote solar are imperative

Fact.We need more recycling facilities spread across the country.

Fact.Companies in California are not throwing away solar panels in landfills - it’s illegal

Fact.When our team visited landfills in California, workers said they didn’t accept panels, and our team saw no evidence of panel dumping

Fact.There are 72 Universal Waste Handlers in California able to handle solar panels

Fact.Selenium is NOT metal; it’s a mineral that, in excess, can be toxic, but itself is a nonmetal; in fact, you can purchase it as a supplement in a health food store


Where solar panel materials end up is important to everyone, especially leaders in the solar industry, but keeping our eye on the energy independence prize is key while we advocate for better national policies that give organizations the direction they need to close the loop on solar panels. What’s unique is that solar and wind materials can be circular; our grandfather’s energy sources, however, cannot. This new energy diversity is what helps make a nation more resilient. After all, there’s a reason the world looks to solar as an obtainable option to help reach sizable climate goals.

Transparency is important as we move toward a circular economy for solar panels. We invite journalists, policymakers, and industry professionals to use Green Clean Solar as a resource for boots-on-the-ground information. Our team actually shows up to sites to collect panels for recycling.



Resources:

CalRecycle Directory

CalRecycle Electronic Waste Management

Earth911.org

DTSC’s Hazardous Wastes in Your Home

https://dtsc.ca.gov/universal-waste-fact-sheet/

https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/california-rule-facilitating-the-40963/

https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-07-14/california-rooftop-solar-pv-panels-recycling-danger

https://hbr.org/2019/07/the-elusive-green-consumer

https://grist.org/energy/solar-panels-are-starting-to-die-what-will-we-do-with-the-megatons-of-toxic-trash/

https://www.re-plus.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/N253_9-14-1530.pdf

https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/05/23/if-solar-panels-are-so-clean-why-do-they-produce-so-much-toxic-waste/?sh=69729aa3121c

https://www.irena.org/publications/2016/Jun/End-of-life-management-Solar-Photovoltaic-Panels


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