Are we ready for photovoltaic waste? Around 70 million tonnes of photovoltaic waste are expected to be produced by 2050s. Photo: Lorie Shaull via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Are we ready for photovoltaic waste?

The implementation of EU laws for the recycling of photovoltaic (PV) panels in Slovenia has revealed insufficiencies and obvious room for improvement in the current regulations for photovoltaic waste, experts and politicians warn. 

The 2012 EU Directive on electrical and electronic equipment waste (WEEE) stipulates the application of the “extended producer responsibility” principle, whereby the producer or importer should bear the cost of and responsibility for end-of-life panels. This was transposed into Slovenian law through the Decree on electrical and electronic equipment waste, which came into effect on August 8, 2015. 

In Slovenia, photovoltaic waste management is governed by this Decree. At the same time, EU law requires the country to honour the goals and commitments arising from Directive 2012/19/EU.  Judging by the directive, the issue is fairly well regulated. However, according to Member of the EU Parliament Franc Bogovič,  the directive itself places Slovenia in the group of countries that may achieve lower annual collection rates because of its lack of necessary infrastructure and its low level of EEE consumption. This indicates insufficiencies in the country’s regulation of WEEE and obvious room for improvement in terms of effectiveness. 

In comparison, despite very strict standards for installing PV systems and having the world’s highest number of solar roof panels per capita, Australia has yet to come up with a nation-wide solution for PV waste recycling. In fact, most of the Australian states still allow the disposal of end-of-life panels in landfills, something that is strictly prohibited across the EU. Other parts of the world paint a similar picture to what can be seen in Australia, making the EU an example for other world regions in terms of its policy on electrical and electronic equipment waste recycling. Such was the reply of Gregor Tehovnik, the Director of GTECH, in reply to Energetika.NET’s question on how well photovoltaic waste management is regulated. 

What to do with end-of-life PV panels?

Currently, there is not much interest in the collection of end-of-life PV panels, as very few systems have reached the end of their 30-year lives. In practice, old panels are often refurbished and reused, explained Gregor Tehovnik, a successful entrepreneur and the Director of GTECH, whose wealth of experience with the solar market also covers Australia.


“My experience from two existing PV plants in Australia entailed replacing the whole system by dismantling the entire installation and installing a new PV system on the site”, Tehovnik explained. In both cases, the decommissioned panels were kept by the investors and then sold to third parties. Usually, they are refurbished and reused, especially in remote off-grid systems. When a large scope of panels is accumulated, they are sold to developing countries, where new PV panels are often not affordable. Of course, some panels are also defective, damaged or cannot be reused for other reasons. In EU member states, these panels need to be delivered to collection facilities for electrical and electronic equipment waste. There has so far been little interest in the collection of end-of-life panels in Slovenia, and the competent collection facilities are not entirely sure how to act. We can expect the volume of PV waste to start growing rapidly in the coming years as the first systems reach the end of their lives.”

SolarPower Europe: According to the WEEE Directive, European manufacturers and companies bringing modules to the European market are required to organise and finance end-of-life management. In the national implementation of the WEEE Directive, member states’ laws oblige producers to join collection schemes such as PV Cycle and pay recycling fees.

Tehovnik drew attention to the Decree on electrical and electronic equipment waste, under which the recycling costs should be borne by the importer or producer (the same principle applies in the rest of the EU). “Therefore, the importer has to pay a special charge for the PV panel when they first launch it in the market”, he explained. “Households may dispose of their PV panels free-of-charge in collection facilities. For companies and sole traders, the process is slightly more complicated, especially if the PV system had been bought before the ‘extended producer responsibility’ principle came into effect. For detailed information and a cost estimate, they can contact one of the collection facilities for legal entities. If one is obliged to pay for the disposal of PV waste, it makes sense to consider installing a new PV system on the same site; this way, the supplier of the new PV plant can collect the decommissioned panels and may be made eligible for free disposal by the importer.”

In anticipation of 70 million tonnes of PV waste

Around 70 million tonnes of PV waste are expected to be produced by 2050, said Tehovnik when asked about the biggest challenges of PV waste management. He added: “I think this will not be too great a challenge for Slovenia and other EU member states to rise to; it might even be an opportunity to set up a new industry. Unlike other electronic equipment, a PV panel is fairly easy to recycle, as it is composed of a few basic components. Meanwhile, it may pose a huge environmental problem in less developed countries, where used PV panels are usually exported. These countries lack the technical skills and financial resources to set up competent panel recycling facilities. And due to poor environmental regulations, there is a risk that masses of end-of-life panels might end up in landfills.”

What would a perfect PV waste management system look like? In Tehovnik’s view, it would be very useful if other countries outside of the EU implemented clear regulations and applied the “extended producer responsibility” principle. “Most importantly, the disposal of PV waste in landfills should be prohibited universally. This would ensure a sufficient influx of end-of-life panels into recycling facilities, prevent adverse environmental impacts, and ensure the recovery of materials from used panels. By bringing various research institutions into the process and adopting adequate legislation, recycling techniques could develop substantially, while the recovered materials would cover all the recycling costs. This way, competent companies could emerge across Europe that would, among other things, export recycling equipment to other parts of the world.”

“The more that recycling techniques develop and the more the economic potential of PV waste recycling grows, the higher the chances that this waste will be recycled instead of ending up in landfills”, emphasised Tehovnik.

The Slovenian Ministry of Infrastructure: “No PV waste is expected by 2020 as the life expectancy of all operational panels extends beyond this date. A large portion of end-of-life panels may be refurbished to be reused. Nevertheless, the decommissioning and reuse of all renewable energy technologies will pose challenges in the future and will need to be addressed strategically, as with all other types of waste.”

When asked about the challenges of PV waste, Dag Kralj, Member of the Board of the Bisol Group–present in more than 70 countries and Slovenia’s only manufacturer of photovoltaic modules and other solar equipment–said that one of the problems in the future could be an insufficient number of recycling plants. The system has been set up, and special-purpose funds are being raised, but the “problem” is a lack of input materials, more specifically modules that have reached the end of their life spans, explained Kralj. He added: “One needs to bear in mind that in 2000, for instance, fewer solar plants were installed worldwide, with smaller combined peak-power, than Slovenia has today. And if not entirely useless in terms of quality, these panels still have about half of their lives to go. It took the car industry one hundred years to set up a working system.”

Until 2018, another problem had been the right classification of PV modules (as in its type of waste), said Kralj: “The thing is, if the importer or producer is selling directly, they are obliged to pay a special recycling charge to one of the authorised organisations (e.g., PV CYCLE) for each module sold in a certain market. In each country, the organisations have collection points where clients can deliver their discarded modules.”

The implementation of EU laws for the recycling of photovoltaic (PV) panels in Slovenia has revealed insufficiencies and obvious room for improvement in the current regulations for photovoltaic waste. Photo: zak zak via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Adequate legislation and PV waste management system in place in the EU

When asked about the costs, Kralj said that they varied from country to country as well as from supplier to supplier, ranging from EUR 1 to 5 per module. According to Kralj, the PV waste management system in place in the EU should be expanded to the rest of the world.

In the EU, adequate legislation is already in place, agrees global entity Greenpeace. The nature protection organisation explains that under the EU law, at least 85% of waste from modules must be recovered, and at least 80% of it must be prepared for reuse and recycled. “Most of the producers will offer to collect the panels and recycle them, and recycling plants have been set up for the first generation of decommissioned solar panels, meeting the needs of individual EU member states. The high demand for such facilities elsewhere in Europe indicates that investment in recycling plants should be accelerated.”

“Increasing the recyclability and continuing the development of alternative technologies that help reduce the consumption of key metals are vital elements of a strategy that needs to be developed in the field of solar panels”, said Greenpeace. According to this NGO, producers “should aim and have a duty to develop panels in a way that they minimise their waste and carbon footprint and maximise their life expectancy. Producers should also strive to develop products that are fully recyclable after they have served their purpose. And consumers should be obliged to deliver their discarded panels to a recycling company”.

About three years ago, Greenpeace looked into the recycling rate of solar panels, i.e., the share of material from the waste product that is turned into material for a new product. “It was at around 95%, involving silicon and metal housing, with only a small portion of materials (fittings, etc.) that cannot be recycled. “Such unrecyclable material can also be found in used cars, household appliances, etc., so solar panels are no exception. On the other hand, no one ever wonders how materials are ‘recycled’ and what the maintenance cost is in thermal or nuclear power plants”, noted the NGO.

Good practice example: First Solar recycling recovers up to 90% of materials

“Solar PV modules have a relatively long lifespan compared to other electronics, such as mobile phones, at approximately 30 years. At present, the solar PV module waste stream is small at less than 1% of installed mass, considering PV deployment emerged just 10 years ago. However, it will begin to grow rapidly around 2030 and will equal installation levels by 2050”, states SolarPower Europe.

“According to IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency), the ratio of PV module waste to new installations starts out at just 5% in 2020 but will subsequently rise to 4-14% in 2030, and 80-89% in 2050. The good news is that between 75 and 90% of solar panel module mass is recycled. IRENA estimates that by 2030, materials recovered from solar panels could be worth USD 450 million and could exceed USD 15 billion by 2050.”

SolarPower Europe also drew attention to PV CYCLE, a not-for-profit launched in 2007, which offers a collective for tailor-made PV waste management and legal compliance services for companies and waste holders around the world. In Europe, four million tonnes of solar PV are currently installed, and over 70% of European solar PV manufacturers are part of the PV CYCLE network, added SolarPower Europe.

“One very good example is First Solar, whose recycling recovers up to 90% of materials. First Solar’s state-of-the-art recycling facilities are operational in Germany, the US and Malaysia, with a scalable capacity to accommodate high-volume recycling as more modules reach the end of their 25+ year life. Up to 90% of the semiconductor material can be reused in new modules and 90% of the glass can be reused in new glass products”, SolarPower Europe told Energetika.NET.

No estimate available of the amount of PV waste in Slovenia

For answers about the volume of photovoltaic waste in Slovenia, Energetika.NET has contacted the country’s Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning, which currently has no concrete data on the amount of PV modules and PV waste in Slovenia (nor could the Ministry of Infrastructure provide any estimate or analysis). “This is due to one of the characteristic features of such products, i.e., their lifespan–unlike with other electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), the life expectancy of solar panels is very long at around 30 years”, said the ministry.

Thanks to the long life span of PV modules, an almost negligible volume of end-of-life panels has so far been collected, noted the ministry. “According to reports by the PV CYCLE association, 99% of today’s end-of-life PV modules have suffered some sort of transportation or installation damage or are guarantee or warranty cases, and just 1% have been discarded by the end user. In Slovenia, the PV boom started after 2010, and thanks to the long life expectancy of panels, no large volume of PV waste is expected before the period 2025-2030. Only then can we expect systemic waste sorting, which, when compared to other WEEE collection, is more cost-effective, enables greater effectiveness and a higher rate of waste collection and increases the chances of materials from end-of-life PV modules to be reused. 

What affects PV waste management is the fact that this waste differs from other WEEE in volume, size and weight, and that it largely consists of glass, while other EEE is mainly made of plastic and metals. The volume of panels that enter the market is large compared to other EEE, yet thanks to their long lives relatively little waste is generated”, explained the Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning.

The Slovenian Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning: “The photovoltaic industry has made the commitment to be responsible for PV modules throughout their life cycle, while under the applicable law the so-called ‘extended producer responsibility’ principle applies to such products across the EU. Under the Directive 2012/19/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council on electrical and electronic equipment waste (WEEE), the provisions on WEEE management also apply to PV modules. Under these rules, the producers are required to ensure and finance adequate management of waste from these products. This can be done individually or as part of special collective schemes for WEEE management or PV waste collection and management. In the EU, the two most prominent of such organisations are PV CYCLE and CERES. Established by the photovoltaic industry, they organise the collection, transport and recycling of end-of-life PV modules on behalf of the producers. In Slovenia, no collective PV waste management system is currently in place. However, some producers are members of the aforementioned organisations and provide adequate management of end-of-life modules through these organisations. In short, in Slovenia end-of-life PV panels are currently collected as part of special collection schemes organised by the producers or as part of WEEE collection.”

GEN-I installed around 500 new micro solar plants in 2018 and has recently installed the first GEN-I Sun solar power plant on a multi-family residential building in Slovenia. Photo: GEN-I

GEN-I and Petrol on the significance of the recycling value chain

The long life expectancy of PV modules was highlighted also by GEN-I, a company that installed around 500 new micro solar plants in 2018 (after around 300 in 2017 and less than 100 in 2016) and has recently installed the first GEN-I Sun solar power plant on a multi-family residential building in Slovenia. “The PV modules installed today will be decommissioned 30 or more years from now. Therefore, it makes little sense to be overly concerned about what happens then, because science is progressing at breakneck speed”, said the company. It added: “That said, several associations and companies already exist that engage in recycling solar plant components. One of them is PV CYCLE, an association established in 2007, whose members include our PV modules supplier, the Bisol Group. Membership in this organisation covers the recycling of such equipment. The main purpose of establishing PV CYCLE was to deliver on the commitment of the photovoltaic industry to be responsible for PV modules throughout their life cycle.” GEN-I’s advice to potential investors is to think carefully and select a credible partner to install their solar plant.

PV waste management has been an important issue for a long time, and this is not likely to change any time soon, agrees Petrol, Slovenia’s largest energy company. Petrol realises that the panels that were installed a while ago will soon have to be decommissioned, replaced and recycled. “In accordance with the WEEE directive, we have signed an agreement with our partner Luxor, voted the top PV brand for solar modules in Germany, to set up a recycling value chain. Under this agreement, Petrol collects the damaged, discarded or defective panels, and Luxor takes them to be recycled”, explained the company, adding that the service is free-of-charge for their customers.

According to the company, the biggest challenges in PV waste management include logistics and storage until the actual recycling and then the recycling itself. In their view, the costs should not be shifted to the customer. “The costs should be distributed along the recycling value chain. Recycling does come at a cost, but there are still many high-quality materials that can easily be reused. We believe that this already makes an attractive scheme, as it involves the processing of sought-after materials such as glass, aluminium, plastic and silver. This is a great business opportunity, one which promises the development of business models that are more flexible and more attractive for the entire recycling value chain”, concluded Petrol.

“Generally speaking, a PV module makes high-quality waste, as it can be processed into high-quality materials or components such as aluminium, glass, copper, silicon. There is no risk that commercial interest in this waste might wane”, concurred Kralj.

MEP on possible improvements

For more answers on how well PV waste management is regulated, Energetika.NET also turned to Bogovič, the MEP from Slovenia. Bogovič said: “It seems reasonable to me that the PV waste decommissioning and recycling infrastructure should not have to be set up by each country individually, and that the synergies of the EU would be used instead to make collective facilities to provide these services using state-of-the-art technology. The environmental aspect of recycling should be considered, as well, in the sense of finding a way to maximise the profitability of decommissioning and recycling schemes while minimising their environmental impact. I believe it would be great progress to harmonise and standardise processes rather than have each country invest in its own systems, as this would bring together knowledge, money and infrastructure on the one hand, and, on the other hand, reduce the cost of recycling.”

“Waste also raises the issue of the person responsible for recycling and bearing the costs. Now this is the responsibility of the producer or the distributor. This is all very well. However, the life expectancy of PV modules can be up to 30 years, and the question is if after 30 years, one can still count on the original supplier or producer. In my opinion, it would make much more sense if producers and distributors, when selling or importing a PV product, were required to pay a special fee to a decommissioning fund. At the end of the product life, the fund would cover the cost of the product recycling. It is also vital to put in place PV product traceability systems for countries to monitor the manufacturing or importing as well as the recycling of end-of-life products. In short, we need traceability systems for PV equipment, while solutions for the most efficient, state-of-the art and cost-effective decommissioning systems possible should be sought at the EU level. It is worth considering the establishment of a PV decommissioning and waste management fund, which would be financed with part of the proceeds from the sale of PV products to avoid shifting responsibility when the time comes for products to be decommissioned”, added Bogovič.

Former Member of the EU Parliament, Romana Jordan: “The ‘polluter pays’ principle applies in the EU, which requires that the costs of waste management be borne by producers. Naturally, the costs would indirectly be shifted down the chain.”

This story was originally published by the portal EnergetikaNET under the title Are We Ready for Photovoltaic Waste? on March 13, 2019. It is reprinted by special permission by EneretikaNET. All rights reserved!

The article was prepared under the project Quality Journalism for Environmental Activists in Russia and the EU and implemented by BlueLink and the Environmental Rights Centre BELLONA (www.bellona.ru) in 2018-2019. The project was supported by the EU– Russia Civil Society Forum (www.eu-russia-csf.org) and its donors. The content of the article is the responsibility of its author and may not reflect the donors’ point of view.

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