The Emerging PV Module Recycling Market

published: 2012-03-15 15:15 | editor: | category: Analysis

By D.A. Barber

The increase in installed PV capacity, mainly in countries such as Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, France, the U.S. and Japan, has made recycling the usable waste generated by end-of-life PV modules a new priority. In January 2012, the European Parliament approved an updated version of their Directive on collection targets for waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE), such as mobile phones and household appliances that now includes PV modules with an eye on recycling older PV materials and waste materials used to manufacture PVs.

In the United States, the City and County of San Francisco became the latest area to achieve the status of "e-Stewards Enterprise" on February 23, 2012, to which means zero WEEE waste will go to landfills.

Two recent reports indicate that the waste generated by end-of-life PV modules will become both a growing concern and a huge recycling market for a number of rare earth materials used in the manufacture of PVs. In fact, with PV modules having a 25 year lifespan, the waste generated by end-of-life PV modules in 2025 is expected to be approximately 24,855 tons.

E-waste Growing
Each year in the EU, some 2.7 billion tons of waste is thrown away. On average, only 40 percent of municipal waste is re-used or recycled, with the rest going to landfills or incineration. According to a study published in mid-January 2012 by the European Commission, full implementation of EU waste legislation would save $93.7 billion and create over 400,000 jobs by the year 2020.


According to aFebruary 22, 2010,report by United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), "Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources," the amount of e-waste being produced - including mobile phones and computers - could rise by as much as 500 percent over the next decade in some countries. The United States is the world leader in producing electronic waste, tossing away about 3 million tons each year and China generates about 2.3 million tons. This e-waste is expected to increase by roughly 11 percent by 2014. But it is that waste has that has the greatest value in terms of recycling. It’s not just the gold, silver, and copper used in electronics, but also rare earth minerals that are currently used in not just electronics, but also PVs.

WEEE Directive

The new European WEEE Directive was much discussed at the 11th International Electronics Recycling Congress, which took place in Salzburg, Austria, from January 18-20, 2012.

The EU’s first WEEE Directive was adopted 10 years ago directing member countries to collect at least 4 kg of waste per inhabitant annually. With roughly 500 million people living in the EU, that means about two million tons of e-waste collected, treated, and recycled. The rules state that waste producers must pay for the collection, treatment, and recycling of the waste.

Changes were first proposed by the EU Commission in December 2008 and the European Parliament voted its first reading position in February 2011. In March 2011, the Council began revising the rules in order to not only improve collection and recycling of used electronic devices, but also to reduce illegal exports of the waste. The agreement proposed means member states must annually collect 45 percent of the average weight of WEEE and four years later, the EU member states must achieve a 65 percent collection rate.

The New EU Rules

In January 2012, the European Parliament put final approval on the WEEE Directive to raise collection targets and imposes new recovery and treatment obligations on producers and retailers. The main changes in the new legislation require that within seven years after the directive goes into force, 85 percent of e-waste annually generated in the 27 member states will have to be properly collected, treated and recycled. In total volume, this means about 10 million tons per year - a 500 percent increase from the current target. The new version of the WEEE Directive also demands that all EU member states must increase their collection of e-waste, regardless of whether they already meet the current flat-rate target of 4 kg per person per year. By 2016, most will have to collect 45 tons of e-waste for every 100 tons of electronic goods produced the three years previously.

Recycling PVs

An April 2011 Bio Intelligence Service study ordered by the EU Commission concluded that including PV panels in the WEEE directive will generate economic benefits by limiting the quantity of PV panels improperly disposed of, avoid toxic chemicals leaching into the environment, and allow recovery of valuable resources and rare metals.

 “Solar Module Recycling - A Necessary Step to Maximize Environmental Benefits of Solar PV Industry,” a January 2012 report from GlobalData, details the economics of the PV recycling process. The study predicts that the waste generated by end-of-life PV modules alone in 2025 could reach 24,855 tons and increase to over 1 million tons by 2035. Crystalline modules will account for the majority of this PV waste, rising from 19,475 tons in 2025, to 1,098,282 tons by 2035.

Photo courtesy of SolarWorld

The study foresees $0.58 per-watt will be generated in 2025 from recycled PVs. With a 100 percent collection rate, 278MW of PVs are expected to be recycled in 2025 with that rising to 17,000MW by 2035. By then the per-watt recycled value is predicted to reach $1.21, depending on the market price variations of the materials. For crystalline modules, the expected recycled product value is predicted to increase from $122 million in 2025 to $12,908 million by 2035. In 2025, the recycled values of glass and aluminum are expected to account for $105 million and $11 million of the $122 million respectively, and $11,066 million and $1,131 million respectively by 2035.

PV Recycling in the U.S.

In the United States there is no federal directive on recycling electronic equipmentand only 17 states ban disposal of electronics in landfills. In fact, among the 50 states, there are 50 different sets of waste reduction rules, much like there are for the solar energy permitting process. But a number of individual cities and counties have started programs to support the recycling of electronic equipment – including PVs – based on the work of several independent organizations.

Certified “e-Stewards Recycler” companies have been independently certified as meeting the “e-Stewards Standard for Responsible Recycling and Reuse of Electronic Equipment,” currently the strongest standard governing the management of e-waste and which “forbids the export of e-waste to developing countries and use of prison labor.”

The e-Steward Standard was developed by the Basel Action Network (BAN) and officially launched in April 2010 as “the world’s first global e-waste recycler certification.” Today, it is considered the “gold standard” in the electronics recycling industry and the only standard that does not permit the export of e-waste to developing nations for reprocessing. Because of this, a growing number of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. now require e-Stewards Certification of their recyclers, of which there are currently 31 certified.

The “e-Stewards Enterprise” designation also recognizes cities and counties that take tangible measures to use certified e-Stewards Recyclers to manage their electronic waste and recycling contracts. On December 21, 2011,the California City of San Jose, the "capital of Silicon Valley," became the first city to earn the e-Stewards Enterprise. More recently on February 23, 2012,the City and County of San Francisco achieved the same status.

Another U.S. organization working to ensure PVs are recycled and the solar industry as a whole reduces its use of toxic chemicals in PV manufacturing is the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC). The group ranks solar manufacturers through their annual “Solar Score Card” that measure, among other things, product recycling and life-cycle monitoring. For 2011, SVTC’s top-scoring PV companies were SolarWorld, Trina Solar, First Solar, REC, and Abound Solar.

Conclusions: A Future PV Recycling Industry

The growth of the global PV market supported by governments around the world has caused many of those governments to take a hard look at what happens at the end of the lifecycle of these PV modules in 20 to 25 years. This opens up a new PV recycling industry in the coming decade since it is projected that the per-watt recycled product value of these PV modules is expected to reach $1.21 or more by 2025, depending on how much of these materials become short in supply.

An April 2011 report ordered by theEU Commission, "Study on Photovoltaic Panels Supplementing the Impact Assessment for a Recast of the WEE Directive,” concluded that the total costs of collecting, pre-treating and recycling residential PV panels will be over $2.6 billionannually by 2050. However, 100 percent recovery of aluminum, 95 pecent of glass, and 30 percent of rare metals could generate revenues of approximately $23 billion by 2050.

Recycling PV materials, especially the aluminum, silver, and rare earth materials, presents unique challenges since they require multiple technologies and variations within specific types of recycling technologies to separate the PV module components. One problem the U.S. has in moving forward is that the are no major metal smelters for the salvaged materials available in that country so smelting companies in Canada, Denmark and Japan are capturing that part of the recycling business.

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