The upside of renewable energy is beyond dispute and its contribution to reducing carbon emissions is substantial. Solar panels and batteries are being installed in record numbers across residential dwellings, commercial and utility-scale facilities.
The downside is that approximately 100,000 tonnes of solar panels will enter Australia’s waste stream by 2035 which highlights the importance of ensuring these ‘dead’ panels are diverted from landfill and refurbished and/or recycled. End-of-life (EoL) solar panels can result in hazardous waste management problems where the materials leach into groundwater and soil in around landfill sites.
The production of solar panels consumes materials that are non-renewable so the opportunity to maximise resource recovery should not be overlooked. The significance of reuse and recycling become very obvious.
Today, there are very few in-country refurbishment or recycling operations established to process EoL panels which means that we are losing valuable and scarce materials that could otherwise go back into manufacturing new products.
According to Sustainability Victoria the average life span of a solar panel is approximately 21 years, and the few dead panels that are being recovered are mostly for the aluminium frame and junction box. Sadly, the remaining 83% of the materials i.e. silicon, glass and polymers are not being recycled.
Enter product stewardship and the relevance of Extended Producer Responsibility to require solar panel manufacturers and suppliers to take greater responsibility for their products beyond the point of sale and warranty. In short, this means ensuring there is an industry0-fudned recovery, refurbishment and recycling program in place nationwide. This type of manufacturer-funded stewardship scheme is already in place for EoL televisions, computers, smartphones, toner cartridges and tyres.
Most importantly, EoL solar panels and batteries are on the Australian Government’s priority watch list for potential stewardship action under the Product Stewardship Act. This could result in regulated or voluntary take-back schemes that are consumer-friendly and keep dead panels out of landfill.
The time has certainly arrived for manufacturers and suppliers of solar panel systems to make waste avoidance and reduction a core business priority and customer service ahead of these products become an environmental burden.
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