Solar Panel Recycling in Washington and Oregon

Solar Recycling in OR & WA

End-of-life disposal of solar products in the US is governed by the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and state policies that govern waste. To be governed by RCRA, panels must be classified as hazardous waste. To be classified as hazardous, panels must fail to pass the Toxicity Characteristics Leach Procedure test (TCLP test). Most panels pass the TCLP test, and thus are classified as non-hazardous and are not regulated.

Solar panels are designed to last more than 25 years, and many manufacturers back their products with performance guarantees backed by warranties, such as SolarWorld & Sunpower. The lifespan of a solar photovoltaic panel is approximately 20-30 years, while the lifetime of an inverter is approximately 15 or 25 years; depending on the inverter type.

Therefore, many solar products installed in recent years have not yet reached end-of-life, and in fact, panels installed in the early 1980s are still performing at levels nearly equal to its original performance. Thus, even accounting for the dramatic growth of the industry, annual solar equipment waste will not exceed 10,000 tons until after 2014, and will not exceed 100,000 tons until after 2017As the world seeks cleaner power, solar energy capacity has increased sixfold in the past five years.

Nearing A Cliff

So as solar moves from the fringe to the mainstream, insiders, and watchdog groups are beginning to talk about producer responsibility and recycling in an attempt to sidestep the pitfalls of electronic waste and retain the industry’s green credibility. Solar modules have an expected lifespan of at least 20 years so most have not yet reached the end of their useful lives. “But now, before a significant number of dead panels pile up, is the perfect time to implement a responsible program,” said Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Possible Hazards Solar Panels May Pose To Health & Environment

Installed silicon-based cells pose minimal risks to human health or the environment according to reviews conducted by the Brookhaven National Lab and the Electric Power Research Institute.

Because solar panels are encased in heavy-duty glass or plastic, there is little risk that the small amounts of semiconductor material present can be released into the environment.   While recycling methods and take-back policies vary by manufacturer, the most frequently recycled components are the cover glass, aluminum frame, and solar cells.  Small quantities of valuable metals including copper and steel are also recoverable.

Following this process, the glass and aluminum frame are separated and typically sold to industrial solar panel recycling manufacturers.  The solar cells are then reprocessed into silicon wafers with valuable metals recovered and sold.  Depending on the condition, the wafer can then either be remade into a functioning cell or granulated to serve as feedstock for new polysilicon. The greatest end of life health risk from crystalline solar modules arises from lead containing solders.

House Bill 2346, Pending In The Washington State Legislature, Directly Addresses The Recycling Issue.

It states: “NEW SECTION.  Sec. 9.  (1) Findings. The Legislature finds that a convenient, safe, and environmentally sound system for the recycling  of solar modules, minimization of hazardous waste, and recovery of commercially valuable materials must (emphasis supplied) be established.” The Legislature further finds that the responsibility for this system must be shared among all stakeholders, with manufacturers financing the take-back and recycling system.

It goes on to further state:  “Each manufacturer must prepare and submit a stewardship plan to the department by the later of January 1, 2019, or within thirty days of its first sale of a solar module in or into the state.” The seriousness with which the legislature is mandating take back and recycling can be seen in the enforcement provision. It states, quite clearly, that  “Beginning January 1, 2020, no manufacturer may sell or offer for sale a solar module in or into the state unless the manufacturer has submitted to the department a stewardship plan and received plan approval.”

Interestingly enough, Oregon does not, as of this writing, have a recycling proposal or law.