Without New Recycling Schemes, Solar Industry to Perpetuate e-Waste Problem

solar cell in factory photo

Photo via OregonDOT via Flickr CC

Solar cells are everywhere these days, from household rooftops to handheld devices, powering up with the sun is popular. However, while solar cells allow us to harvest renewable energy, a lot of problematic materials go into creating them, and their embodied energy footprint can be substantial. Just how much does the popularity of solar cells contribute to the problem of e-waste? As solar panels start to reach the end of their useful life, we're about to find out. SF Public Press reports that clean tech firms are beginning to look into how to reuse the rare and potentially toxic material used in solar cell processing, including cadmium, selenium, silicon tetrachloride and sulfur hexafluoride, which is a potent greenhouse gas. It's a good idea because watchdog groups who have been vigilant about e-waste among electronics manufacturers and who have been behind significant progress including bans on e-waste exports and elimination of toxic materials are beginning to turn attention toward solar modules.

And rightly so. According to a Greentech Media estimate from 2009 cited in the article, US solar demand will increase at a rate of 50% per year through 2012, a rate that could put the US ahead of Spain and possibly Germany by that year. But as solar panels hit the end of their useful life, that boom in production will become a boom in recycling or end-of-life processing. The potential for hazardous e-waste is huge.

According to the article, most producers want recycling (at least, that's what we gather from the small response to third party surveys), but "Solar companies tend to be secretive about their product recipes, making some manufacturers cautious about, yet conceptually open to, third-party recycling." The piece outlines the potential health hazards of the various materials found in solar panels.

"We think some solar panels, probably the cadmium thin film type, might be hazardous waste when shredded or disposed of in a landfill," said Charles Corcoran, a hazardous substances scientist at the department.

From the huge panels used in arrays, to the smaller modules on homes, to the tiny panels in elecronic devices, the the issue of recycling is important; while Europe has already gotten a jump on solar module recycling, in the US even California -- one of the leaders in recycling -- lacks a solar module recycling facility. But local recycling plants can help create jobs, and reduce the footprint of solar modules, making them much more sustainable. And extending producer responsibility to include recycling could make the process much easier:

"If you don't look at the recycling when you're designing the product, then it's really, really difficult to recycle," Davis said. "But if you know you're going to have to pay for the recycling at the end of life, you might make the necessary design changes in your product now to reduce that cost."

Do we need solar panel recycling now? Yep, even the Raging Grannies think so:

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More on Solar Panel Recycling
Why Did Just 25% of Solar Power Corps Respond to Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's Green Survey?
Solar Panel Toxic Manufacturing Byproducts, Product Disposal Needs Greater Oversight, Report Urges
Solar Cheaper than Coal: First Solar's Cadmium Telluride Breakthrough

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