Recyclable Packaging: How Solar Manufacturers Can Improve Hard-to-Recycle Materials
Updated: Nov 22
Calling all Solar Manufacturers! While driving capacity remains a core focus, it's also time to consider the reusability/recyclability of equipment and packaging materials to make the industry more circular. Here's why. Large-scale projects create large-scale waste. Solar waste piles up from broken panels to steel racking, from plastic straps to copper wire spools. Tapping into recyclable packaging for solar equipment means addressing where packaging could be examined, revised, and upgraded to be more circular economy-focused. Beyond solar panels, the giant mounds of packaging can also be improved.
Mixed materials packaging poses a challenge on the backend. Take, for example, plastic straps with metal staples - this is considered contaminated plastic because the metal cannot be separated feasibly. Plastic resins are particularly susceptible to contamination, and plastic must be clean and pure when melted down. We can't mix resin types on final products. Having multiple metal bands on these long plastic straps means a person or a machine would have to dedicate long hours to remove the metal to make both recyclable. Instead, they are often put into landfill hauls because the process is too time-consuming. This is just one example of the opportunities we have to course-correct to make packaging more circular in the Solar Industry.
Tips to consider for solar equipment packaging
Regarding panels, standard pallets are about 4,000 pounds and around 6 feet tall. Panels come in large cardboard boxes and wood crates, corner cushions are sometimes placed on the edges, and the pallet is banded and strapped for safe transport. That said, those are just the panels. There is racking and electrical panels as well, including bolts, nuts, electrical components, batteries, copper wiring, and inverters, which all require packaging.
Below are some tips for considering your solar packaging and suppliers.
We understand the need for some mixed material items. However, where possible, it's ideal for simplifying materials that can create wins for clients down the line when they're faced with the challenges of recycling. Consider a packaging product as a whole; yes, what will be functional but also what will be recyclable. If you can choose between a pallet with glue versus many metal brackets that can damage a chipper, opt for the simpler version, or if there must be two materials, consider how it can quickly and easily be taken apart to pass the recyclability test. Virginia Tech conducted a study, and the results showed that solvent-based construction adhesive performed best and was more effective for pallets than metal nails which have historically complicated the shredding and recycling process.
Choose reusable where viable
New innovations for PV packaging, like PV pallet, have emerged to help the panel manufacturing industry reduce costs and waste by having a solution to ship, reuse, and repeat. Where items can be reused and shipped back to the manufacturer, this creates more circularity in our systems. Reusable packaging has become a massive trend in the consumer products sector, according to Environmental and Energy Leader. It is now making its way to solar construction manufacturing, as evidenced by the launch of PV Pallet. There are many clever ways we can consider packaging reuse with large-scale shipments.
Veer toward monomaterials
It's best to try and minimize the various types of materials down to items that won't cross-contaminate. Especially important for plastic, if you're using HDPE resin plastic for a bucket, see if your supplier can make the handle and lid from HDPE and eliminate any other type of material, like metal so that the entire bucket can be reused and recycled more easily. Otherwise, mixed material recycling will often contaminate the resin or be pulled from the system and tossed in the trash.
Here are some examples of veering toward monomaterials:
HARD TO RECYCLE: Plastic straps with metal bands
MORE RECYCLABLE: Plastic straps with the same resin bands
HARD TO RECYCLE: Wood with large metal pieces that could damage a chipper
MORE RECYCLABLE: Wood with minimal metal or adhesive that would not damage a chipper
REUSABLE: Common sizes, heat-treated pallets
Reduce Empty Space
Reducing space at the shipping point helps minimize freight costs. From the recycling and trash collection point of view, making materials that a shredder can reduce helps your customers save space on trash hauls. Materials that are bulky or have a lot of empty space require more trucks and person-hours to fill those trucks. By reducing empty space in packaging, it becomes valuable at many points in the chain. There are various strategies to minimize empty space that reduces carbon by requiring fewer shipments, fewer trash hauls, and fewer recycling hauls.
Talk with Your Suppliers
Ultimately, your suppliers can help you source solutions that you might not have considered, which address the tips above. The increasing demand for more recyclable packaging will create more of the front-end solutions we need to improve our recycling efforts and rates on solar job sites. Remember, when recycled, some of these materials can deliver rebates back to the project/job and sometimes pay for the service. Landfill hauling will always charge you, but recycling efforts can yield a return depending on the material and the job location. Talking with suppliers can help you choose the most valuable materials that pay on the backend when the shipment is complete, and the client is conducting cleanup.
Green Clean Solar offers manufacturers consulting on their supply chain to help end-users make the most of their waste.
Making these changes is great, but we need to ensure that customers receiving recyclable packages know how to process and handle items. Labeling is essential, and partnering with education services is ideal for giving clients and leads that extra support. When a shift is made toward better packaging and more easily recycled items, it's helpful to build communication with easy-to-understand signage and written communications on packaging letting customers know:
Don't send these items to the landfill
Here's what to do
Here's a partner that can help
Gearing the Solar Industry up for Circularity
The solar industry is impressive because we are taking our lessons and turning them into change. So many EPCs and Land Owners want to do the right thing and aren't waiting for legislation to tell them. Green Clean Solar is proud to work with these companies and supports the manufacturers who want to get ahead of the curve and help their customers reduce and tackle waste.
Green Clean Solar is a leader in Solar Waste Management. We work with Solar Manufactures to consult and help provide solutions that make happier customers. Waste might seem like a problem that will fix itself, but from experience on large-scale projects, it's a challenge for your clients, one that can be corrected with a bit of foresight and planning.
Improve Your Hard-to-Recycle Solar Materials!
Contact Green Clean Solar to consult with your team on the challenges with packaging that we experience downstream; we'll work with you to improve them upstream.
Call or text - 770-229-7168