Solar Panels Are Starting to Die. What Will We Do With The Megatons Of Toxic Trash?

Solar Panels Are Starting to Die. What Will We Do With The Megatons Of Toxic Trash? By Maddie Stone.

By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life, and that the world will be generating about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually. While the latter number is a small fraction of the total e-waste humanity produces each year, standard electronics recycling methods don’t cut it for solar panels. ..

“If we don’t mandate recycling, many of the modules will go to landfill,” said Arizona State University solar researcher Meng Tao, who recently authored a review paper on recycling silicon solar panels, which comprise 95 percent of the solar market. …

Solar panels contain toxic materials like lead that can leach out as they break down, landfilling also creates new environmental hazards. …

Most solar manufacturers claim their panels will last for about 25 years, and the world didn’t start deploying solar widely until the early 2000s. As a result, a fairly small number of solar panels are being decommissioned today. …

Tao and his colleagues estimate that a recycler taking apart a standard, 60-cell silicon panel can get about $3 for the recovered aluminum, copper, and glass. Vanderhoof, meanwhile, says that the cost of recycling that panel in the U.S. is anywhere between $12 and $25 — after transportation costs, which “oftentimes equal the cost to recycle.” At the same time, in states that allow it, it typically costs less than a dollar to dump a solar panel in a solid waste landfill.

Most solar panels are made in China. Meanwhile, more than half of the world’s coal generation is now in China, and China is rapidly heading towards the top of the nuclear generation table. Go figure.

Isaac Orr:

This is an enormous amount of waste. For context, the amount of nuclear waste created from generating electricity in the United States for the last five decades is about 90,000 metric tons. During this time, nuclear power has provided nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity.

This means that solar panels are expected to generate 866 times more waste in the next 30 years than nuclear power has generated in the last 50.