Discarded Solar Panels Result in Toxic Pollution
Photovoltaic panels, used to produce renewable solar power, become complex pieces of electronic waste at the end of their functional lives. The International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will be discarded by 2050, and that the world will be generating about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually. Recovering the silver and silicon inside them requires costly, specialized solutions. Many solar panels contain lead that can leach out as they decompose in landfills. Some panels are exported to developing countries with weak environmental protections. Most are rated for about 25 years of use, so a major influx is due to arrive shortly.
Nonprofit PV Cycle collects thousands of tons of solar e-waste across the European Union each year, where producers are required to ensure that their solar panels are recycled properly. Recycle PV Solar, one of the only recyclers in the U.S., where almost no regulations exist, reports reclaiming just 10 percent of the country’s solar waste. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is investigating new processes to recover all metals and minerals at states of high purity, with the goal of making recycling as economically viable and environmentally beneficial as possible.