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Photovoltaic Recycling in the EU and U.S.

published: 2011-08-01 9:58

Handsome incentives, policy changes, technological advances, and economies of scale have made photovoltaic power plants less expensive and closer in generation cost to fuel sources, such as nuclear and coal -- and the benchmark $0.06 per-kilowatt-hour. The exponential growth of the photovoltaic (PV) market over the past ten years ended the decade with banner production. The 16.6 GW of added capacity makes for 40 GW by year-end.

A significant portion of the expansion took place in the EU, United States, and Asia. Solar energy explosive growth has many benefits, but the advantages of solar power also come with externalities, particularly the issue of solar industry waste.

As the industry matures and continues to expand, governments, environmentalists and consumers have taken notice of the growth and recognition of the avalanche of potential waste when products meet their end-of-life. These groups will demand that the industry have strategies in place to limit and properly dispose of photovoltaic waste.

Solar modules - photovoltaic and thin film cells, and other products require manufacturers to use a wide variety of toxic materials and chemicals. Many of the same materials required to manufacture electronics also go into the solar panel manufacturing process. Besides aluminum, glass, and semiconductor materials, photovoltaic panels and other products have many recoverable materials for reuse.

Recyclable PV Materials

Silicon Cadmium Silicon wafers
 Selenium  Silver
 Tetrachloride  Indium
Sulfur Hexafluoride  Tin
Aluminum  Nickel
Plastics Zinc
Glass Copper
  CIGS filter cake
  CdTe filter cake

 Source: Dustin Mulvaney- University of California, Berkeley

The numerous technologies involved with PV manufacturing require separate methods to disassemble module parts. Even the recycling process burns energy and produces toxic waste. With a useful life of around 20 years, most solar panels -- installed in the early 90s, will start filling waste and recycle bins within the next few years.

The potential environmental, financial and social impact of this issue, if addressed directly, could help companies’ profit margins and make solar a truly “green industry.” No time is better than now, with the solar industry moving to the next stage of development, to address the issue of solar industry waste and recycling.

Firms Responsibility

Solar manufacturing firms increasingly feel the pressure to commit R&D dollars to identifying and developing innovative technologies that consider methods for recapturing material instead of sending them to landfills. The key is to plan for recycling during the product development phrase. In fact, forward-thinking companies have bought into the concept of product “life-cycle management,” which protects the environment through better awareness of environmentally friendly business processes. For example, using the byproducts from other industrial processes, to provide raw materials for module manufacturing.

Life cycle management adopts strategies in the areas of product design, manufacturing, collection, material sourcing, product use, and recycling, as part of the companies' culture. In addition, it makes for “good business.” Research and development divisions seek to develop technologies, which help firms claim their niche or gain a competitive edge in the marketplace with an eye towards reclaiming the raw materials through recycling. They also work to employ non-toxic material, where possible, in the manufacturing process and accept total responsibility for end-of-life for all products in the value chain.

Some firms have tried to get ahead of the waste issue by starting their own voluntary recycling programs, including Abound and First Solar. First Solar, the largest thin-film manufacturer, uses an older thin film PV technology to manufacture its cadmium telluride (CdTe) panels; the company claims it recycles 90 percent of the material used to build its modules.

The company's collection and recycling process uses raw materials with the intention of reusing the material for manufacturing new solar panels or other goods. First Solar prefunds its program by putting aside an amount for each solar module sold. The money goes into a custodial account, only used for collection and recycling activities.

Trina Solar reports on its website the company has invested over $12 million in recycling and $80 million in 'sustainability manufacturing."Nanosolar boasts of the company's commitment to “end-to-end life cycle” of its solar cells and modules. Like many of it competitors, have memberships in the European-based recycling organization the PV CYCLE.

According to CEO Jennifer Woolwich of PV Recycling, LLC, she states some module manufacturers would like to see a “global recycling program” for the entire industry, traceability of products and scaling up.


Launched by the European PV industry in the summer of 2007, PV CYCLE's mission emphasizes setting up a voluntary photovoltaic recycling program for “end-of-life” PV modules. In addition, the organization's members promise to “take responsibility for PV modules throughout their value chain.”

The European Union has the only formal recycling policy - public or private, solar module recycling. PV CYCLE claims a membership of 164, which includes over 90 percent of the organizations comprising the EU's photovoltaic industry. Eight-six percent or 141 have a full membership, which include manufacturers, importers, and research entities. Since the beginning of the year, PV CYCLE has expanded it membership base by 43, with more than 30 applications under review.

PV CYCLE has 105 certified collection locations, including Spain, Italy, Germany, France, UK, and Switzerland. With 80 tons of PV waste processed in 2010, the PV CYCLE falls well short of the 6,000 tons it expected to flow in from the collection points strew across the European continent.

Along with a focus on finding “green” substitutes for key raw materials, and safeguarding the EU raw material sources, PV CYCLE has also established a goal of collecting 65 percent of the PV panels installed in the EU since 1990. Members also plan to recycle 85 percent of the materials.

The free service provides collection and recycling of members' products. Manufacturers and importers support the PV CYCLE organization, which takes discarded modules from installers, wholesalers, and end-customers. Jan Clyncke, managing director of PV CYCLE believes the EU solar community has a real desire to recycle: “We want to make the photovoltaic industry 'double green'.”

PV Recycling in the U.S.

As the United States take the baton from the EU, as the next region to experience substantial solar growth, unlike it EU counterpart, the U. S. does not have a formal plan for addressing PV recycling. However, environmental does apply to hazardous material. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), an environmental organization out of California believes the country needs a national mandate to address the issues related to photovoltaic recycling. The group calls for standardizing recycling regulations in all 50 states. The SVTC   seeks to diminish the risk associated with solar modules and manufacturing.

Most solar product manufacturers understand the need to put a recycling system in place; some companies have started their own  in-house collection and recycling programs, but many firms lack some type of recycling policy. Some manufacturers express concern about funding recycling programs and would like to see more data from the EU recycling approach. Pundits believe manufacturers have recycling program because of competition in the current economic environment; furthermore, firms will only finance recycling programs if forced to do so.

Dr. Karsten Wambach manages Sunicom, SolarWorld's silicone holding, he states manufacturers realize the amount of waste projected for the future and will respond with voluntary recycling measures. He sees the industry scaling up recycling operations as waste streams expand.

Woolwich emphasizes, companies should also think in terms of product going to landfills and possibly contaminating the environment. Taking a “preventative approach” helps firm's reduced financial repercussions of an “adverse events.


Many industry analysts applaud PV CYCLE's attempt at self-regulation, but still believe mandatory regulation is necessary -- in all regions of the world. Some point to the U.S. housing and mortgage industry crisis as proof that the public should not rely on the solar sector perform self-regulation when it comes to recycling. SVTC's Executive Director Shelia Davis advocates the following items as the framework for a recycling program:

- Reduction and elimination of toxic material in the manufacturing process

- Design products with recyclable materials

- Life cycle analysis

- Conducting alternative evaluation

- Testing all materials

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has developed a scorecard to rank solar manufacturers on various aspects, including chemical use, responsibility and takeback and recycling, job creation and life cycle analysis and disclosure. Some companies that scored well include Trina Solar, Yangzi Solar, SunPower, First Solar and SolarWorld. SVTC reports that some companies scored zero on the assessment.

Jennifer Woolwich believes the decision on whether to develop a recycling program in the United States hinge on “the financial risk the industry wants to take relative to the environmental and social impact of its waste.” She also states, companies willing to face the issue of PV waste head on will actually turn the expense into profit.

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