Solar panels contain toxic heavy metals that will require RCRA hazardous waste management when it comes time to recycle or dispose of them. So you may be asking the question, can solar panels be recycled?
Suppose you own or manage a building with an array of solar panels basking in the sunlight atop the roof. In that case, you might be surprised to learn that—in spite of their perceived ecological virtue—they contain heavy metals that will require end-of-life RCRA hazardous waste disposal.
Continue reading for more information about RCRA hazardous waste management, disposal and recycling requirements for end-of-life solar panels. Q&As include:
- Are solar panels really that eco-friendly?
- What heavy metals are found in solar panels?
- What are heavy metals?
- What other toxic waste and materials are found in solar panels?
- Are solar panels recyclable?
- How are solar panels recycled?
- Does the EPA consider end-of-life solar panels hazardous and toxic waste?
- What kinds of solar panels require hazardous waste management?
- How large a problem are end-of-life solar panels?
- Is retro-liability a possibility?
- Where can you find a comprehensive solution?
1. Are solar panels really that eco-friendly?
Solar panels are perceived to be eco-virtuous by much of the public, especially those who ardently vituperate against fossil fuels and collect Greta Thunberg bobbleheads.
So the inconvenient truth that solar panels depend on toxic heavy metals to transmogrify sunlight into dribbles of current isn’t to be discussed in polite company.
Nonetheless, solar panels contain many toxic waste materials that cannot be placed in the municipal trash stream without getting you into expensive trouble with federal, state, and local authorities.
2. What heavy metals are found in solar panels?
Some heavy metals in solar panels are silver, lead, arsenic, and cadmium.
3. What are heavy metals?
These are the earliest metals known to humanity (e.g., iron, copper, tin, silver, gold, and platinum). People who wear white lab coats and accessorize with calculators call them “heavy” because they have higher densities, atomic weights, or atomic numbers than metals that are considered “light,” like magnesium, aluminum, or titanium (see source).
4. What other toxic waste and materials are found in solar panels?
Besides the above (see Q.2), solar panels also contain copper indium selenide, copper indium gallium (di)selenide, hexafluoroethane, and polyvinyl fluoride. Remember that all of these are reported to be “highly toxic” by one David H. Nguyen, Ph.D., whose business card lists “cancer biologist” as his day job. Learn more about solar panals metals list.
5. Are solar panels recyclable?
Not easily. Approximately 90 percent of most PV modules are composed of glass. But this glass often cannot be recycled because it contains impurities such as plastic, lead, cadmium, and antimony. Consider:
- The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is a nonprofit R&D organization that provides objective advice to utilities.
- EPRI researchers conducted a study on behalf of utility companies that own and operate solar farms. Therefore, some recycling or disposal plans will be needed for a future filled with kaput solar panels.
- The report concluded that the disposal of used solar panels into regular landfills is not recommended because their components can break down and cause toxic materials to leach into the soil (see source).
6. How are solar panels recycled?
There are two categories of solar panels, neither of which is easily recycled.
- Silicon-based panels are the most common because they have been around the longest and are more efficient than their thin-film counterparts (see b). Recycling requires mechanically separating aluminum from the recycled glass. Treatment of what’s left starts by heating it to 932°F in special equipment—and that’s just the beginning.
- Thin-film solar panels are cheaper than silicon-based ones but less efficient and, therefore, less ubiquitous. Recycling them is even more demanding. They’re shredded and mechanically hammered to ensure that no one piece of rubble is more significant than 4 to 5 mm. Solids and liquids that remain need separation and further exotic treatments.
7. Does the EPA consider end-of-life solar panels hazardous and toxic waste?
We knew you were going to ask that. Unfortunately, the EPA is coy on the issue. Per their applicable webpage:
“Some solar panels are considered hazardous waste, and some are not, even within the same model and manufacturer. Homeowners with solar panels on their houses should contact their state/local recycling agencies for more information on disposal/recycling (bold type in the original).”
So let’s extrapolate:
- Homeowners are cautioned to “contact their state/local recycling agencies for more information” in big bold print.
- Homeowners characteristically have only 20-to-25 spent solar panels on the roof, despoiling the neighborhood (see source).
- A medium-sized business using an average amount of electricity needs approximately 70 solar panels—about triple that of houses (see source).
- Ergo, a medium-sized business has triple the potential for running afoul of one or more local, state, or federal environmental regulations.
- Ergo, a medium-sized business, better get expert advice about how to dispose of spent solar panels legally and safely.
8. What kinds of solar panels require hazardous waste management?
At first blush, we would say all kinds. But suppose our experts got to meet your aged solar panels up close and personal. In that case, we might be able to diagnose whether the careful placement of the nearly-deceased into your universal waste stream is a more economical option.
That said, we advise treating the following solar panels as hazardous waste:
- Many silicon solar panels have hexavalent chromium coatings, which are frowned upon by OSHA. Over 90 percent of the current solar cell market has been based on silicon, an electrical component of solar cells since Elvis first became king (see source).
- CdTe solar panels for containing cadmium. CdTe solar cells are the second most common photovoltaic technology in the world. The letters “Cd” stand for cadmium and “Te” for tellurium (see source).
- Gallium arsenide (GaAs) solar panels for containing arsenic. GaAs solar panels are highly efficient and durable, thus desirable in challenging conditions (see source).
- Some thin-film solar panels for containing copper and/or selenium (see Q.7b).
Don’t know exactly what’s up there on your roof? We can help you with that. Get expert advice.
9. How large a problem are end-of-life solar panels?
Large. And getting larger. Manufacturers typically warranty solar panels to retain 80 percent of their efficiency for about 20 years. Doing some simple arithmetic means they’re considered still within design specs if they lose about one percent of their original efficiency per year.
As U.S. solar installations began nearly 70 years ago, many legacy solar arrays are likely operating significantly below their out-of-the-box performance. This means your facility’s rooftop solar panels might displace much less fossil-fueled energy than you think.
This dilemma is especially true in states that started adopting solar energy earliest in the game—we’re looking at you, California, Oregon, and Washington—suggesting that eco-virtue might not necessarily be its own reward.
10. Is retro-liability a possibility?
We think yes. While you might get away with landfilling spent solar panels at the moment, what’s merely frowned upon now might become criminally litigious later.
Also, many green-minded owners and managers are warehousing defunct solar panels until a more earth-friendly solution is invented: a laudable tactic fraught with dangers.
Recall that your exhausted solar panels contain arsenic, cadmium, silicon, copper, and lead. And according to the EPA, you’re responsible for storing any toxic waste you generate from “cradle to grave.”
So, while you’re undoubtedly trying to do the right thing, you could instead be storing hazardous waste out of RCRA compliance, which is always an expensive mistake.
11. Where can you find a comprehensive solution?
Hazardous Waste Experts is a solar panel recycling company and is a proven comprehensive source for manufacturers, installers, and solar contractors who require solar-panel disposal and recycling.
Our eco-friendly solar-panel recycling protocols will allow you to realize the residual value of your spent solar equipment—including inverters, batteries, and mounting racks—while simultaneously ensuring that you comply with all applicable state and federal environmental regulations.
That’s better business than just throwing these residual assets away—and a lot more Earth-friendly.
Call Hazardous Waste Experts for solar panel recycling today at (888) 681-8923 or email us.
And thank you for reading our blog!