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Solar Panel e-waste and the circular economy

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

The widespread installation of residential solar panels is an environmental achievement to be celebrated. One in four Australian homes are using solar panels for their main source of energy which equates to 591 watts per person, per capita and is roughly eight times higher than the world solar uptake average!

Unfortunately the lifespan of a standard solar panel is 21 years which will see solar panels, inverters and batteries become the highest growing e-waste stream in Australia. Historically e-waste (electronic waste) has been in the too hard basket for recycling due to the hazardous chemicals they contain that are both harmful to humans and the environment. E-waste tends to languish in landfill and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum suggests that only 17.4% of e-waste is recycled effectively worldwide. Solar panels can contain cadmium and lead which if left untreated can leach into waterways and soils. The NSW Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that by 2025 solar panel waste will be in the area of 3,000 - 10,000 tonnes and reach up to 40,000 – 71,000 tonnes by 2035.

Solar panel waste is a real problem and one that doesn’t yet have a circular solution. At a national level there has been some confusion about creating a product stewardship solution for solar panel waste. The industry peak body the Clean Energy Council wanted to introduce a self-funded and self- regulated scheme which would achieve sustainable targets by 2030. However, the Federal government determined the plan lacked a cohesive, coordinated and sustainable approach and has instead put the industry on notice to have a nationwide plan completed by June 2022. (Tacklelab will be watching this space keenly).

There is some exciting emerging research from scientists at Deakin University. Dr Md Mokhlesur Rahman and Prof Ying (Ian) Chen have discovered a method to extract silicon from the panels and repurpose it into nano- silicon for batteries. Silicon is one of the toughest components of solar panels to extract and recycle so this development is game changing. There are also some interesting initiatives coming out of NSW. The EPA’s Circular Solar grants program awarded funds to Blue Tribe Co. Pty. Limited to establish a community based solar garden that would seek to a test out a new business model for the reuse of decommissioned solar panels. KGM Services trading as The Solar Professionals received funded to establish a delamination process for recycling solar panels.

In Europe Circusol is leading the way in finding a circular business solution to solar panel waste. They plan to disrupt the current model by introducing a system where the supplier continues ownership of the panel hardware and consumers lease them on a rental system. This way the supplier is responsible for recycling or repurpose when the panels need replacement.


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