Recycling of solar panels

Comparison of scenarios for a more circular and safe product chain

The Netherlands has set a target of a circular economy by 2050. This entails that raw and manufactured materials, such as those in solar panels, are recycled. Currently, no raw materials are recovered from End-of-Life solar panels. It is expected that the first generation of solar panels will start to be taken out of use in large numbers in five years’ time. It is important to be prepared for this and to recycle the panels safely and sustainably. Various technologies to recycle solar panels are being developed. RIVM has detailed four options for recycling the glass, solar cells and back sheets of solar panels.

The materials recovered from solar panels can be reused as raw materials for various applications. For this study, we looked into which recycling options appear to be feasible in practice and how environmentally friendly they are. We compared these four options to the current situation (the baseline), in which the solar panels are shredded, the glass is crushed and used as an abrasive medium in the metal industry, and the remainder is then processed for various applications, such as for road bases.

Our analysis shows that all four options are more circular and environmentally friendly than the baseline. Energy consumption differs for each option, but is much lower than for the baseline. This is due to various factors, including the fact that it costs more energy to process new raw materials into solar panels than to work with recycled raw materials. The option whereby glass is recycled into new glass for solar panels is the most circular one. In this case, the raw material silicon can also be recycled for use in new solar panels. This is technologically complex, but feasible.

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Keywords: Solar panels

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FutuRaM will develop the Secondary Raw Materials knowledge base on the availability and recoverability of secondary raw materials (2RMs) within the European Union