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Can we produce new solar panels without recycling e-waste?

A short overview of the rising production of e-waste, the EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act, and the need to recover precious materials from old solar panels.


 

The rising production of e-waste


According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2024, 62 million tonnes of e-waste were produced in 2022. This amount would be enough to “fill 1.55 million 40-tonne trucks, roughly enough trucks to form a bumper-to-bumper line encircling the equator”. The annual production of e-waste is rising by 2.6 million tonnes annually. From 2010 to 2022, the global e-waste production rose by 82%. By 2030, the annual production of e-waste is predicted to rise by another 32% and to reach 82 million tonnes.

 

Less than a quarter (namely 22.3%) of the e-waste mass produced in 2022 was recorded as “properly collected and recycled”. Notably, “[s]ince 2010, the growth of e-waste generation is outpacing the formal collection and recycling by almost a factor of 5”. The Global E-waste Monitor 2024 outlines that there is a “widening difference in recycling efforts relative to the staggering growth of e-waste generation worldwide”. By 2030, it is therefore predicted that the documented collection and recycling rate will drop 20%. According to the Global E-waste Monitor 2024, “technological progress, higher consumption, limited repair options, shorter product life cycles, society’s growing electronification, design shortcomings, and inadequate e-waste management infrastructure” all contribute to the gap between what is produced and what is recycled.

 

On average, Europeans produced 17.6kg of e-waste per capita in 2022. The largest amounts of e-waste per capita were produced in Norway (27kg), the UK (24kg), Switzerland (23kg), France (22kg) and Iceland (22kg). A total of 13 billion kg of e-waste were produced in Europe in 2022. The production of this e-waste released 16.6 billion kg of CO2 equivalents and 6 million kg of mercury emissions into the environment. Of the e-waste produced in Europe in 2022, 5.6 billion kg or 42.8% were recorded as “properly collected and recycled”.


 

Mandatory benchmarks in the EU


On 18 March 2024, the EU’s Council adopted the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA). The act is part of the Green Deal Industrial Plan, and it aims “to ensure a secure and sustainable supply of critical raw materials”. It puts forth two lists of materials that are key to the EU’s transition over to a green and digital economy, as well as for the EU’s space and defense industries. These lists entail 34 critical and 17 strategic materials. The CRMA sets out three benchmarks for the annual consumption of raw materials in the EU. It says that 10% of these raw materials must come from local extraction; 40% are to be processed in the EU; and 25% are to come from recycled materials. Moreover, under the act, EU Member States are required to have national exploration plans.

 

To strengthen strategic project development in the EU, Member States must “create single points of contact at the relevant administrative level and at the relevant stage in the critical raw materials value chain”. The act also sets out maximum periods for granting permits of 27 months for extraction projects and 15 months for recycling and processing projects. Exceptions are permitted to safeguard “a meaningful engagement with the local communities affected” and “a proper environmental impact assessment”. Under the act, battery producers, renewable energy and hydrogen generators, as well as other “large companies manufacturing strategic technologies” must carry out risk assessments of their supply chains.


 

The increasing e-waste from solar panels


Solar panels tend to gradually become less efficient over time as their parts degrade. It is therefore usually more cost-effective to replace solar panels with new ones after roughly 25 to 30 years. Additionally, as newer and more efficient models are regularly produced, it can even be more cost-effective to replace old solar panels with newer models after already 10 to 15 years.

 

As the “first generation of domestic solar panels” is now reaching the end of its lifespan, the amount of waste from solar panels is expected to grow significantly in the second half of this decade. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that there may be 4 million tonnes of scrap solar panels globally by 2030 and over 200 million tonnes by 2050. (As a reference point, the current global production of plastic lays at around 400 million tonnes annually.)


 

The economic viability of recycling solar panels


Glass makes up roughly 80% of the weight of a solar panel. Recycling the aluminum frames and glass from solar panels is a fairly straightforward process that can be done using conventional methods – such as dismantling, crushing, and shredding the waste. The glass recovered this way is usually of a low-quality, though. While the resources found in solar panels – and their respective quantities – vary, it is typically said to cost around $15 to $30 “to dismantle, shred, mill and separate out the materials” from a solar panel in the United States. On average, U.S. recyclers get a return of $2 to $4 for the aluminum, copper, glass, lead, silver, and tin they recover from a single panel.

 

As the precious materials found in solar panels are intertwined with other components, it has until recently not been economically viable to recover these. While the quantity of precious materials in solar panels is small, their high value and scarcity has created an incentive to develop efficient new methods to extract them. It is said that over 60% of a solar panel’s value is contained in just 3% of its weight. Moreover, experts say that we currently lack the silver resources to produce the millions of solar panels needed for the energy transition. Some, however, also say that we might be able to recover close to three-quarters of the silver and other materials needed to produce new solar panels from old units. Notably, many of the solar panels produced in the 1990s contain larger quantities of silver.


 

Beyond the bulk recycling of solar panels


The bulk recycling of solar panels focuses solely on recovering the “high-mass materials”, such as the glass and the metal frames. In June 2023, the “world's first factory dedicated to fully recycling solar panels” opened in Grenoble, France. The factory is owned by a specialist solar recycling company called ROSI. At the factory, the aluminum frames, glass fronts, and “nearly all of the precious materials” – including the copper, silicon, and silver – from solar panels are recycled. These materials are then reused in the production of new solar panels.

 

At the moment, the US solar panel producer, First Solar is “the only panel manufacturer with global in-house photovoltaic (PV) recycling capabilities”. The process used by First Solar “allows for the recovery of so-called closed-loop semiconductors” and these can then be used in new modules. By using “mining by-products”, First Solar aims to maximize material recovery at the end-of-life and to reduce the need for energy, water, and virgin semiconductor materials in its process. First Solar has said that its process allows for the recovery of over 90% of a module’s materials. The quality of the secondary resources won through the process is said to be high. They can therefore be used for new solar panels, as well as a variety of other aluminum, glass, and rubber products.

 

The renewable energy developer, EDF Renewables North America and the California-based recycler, Solarcycle recently concluded a partnership for the recycling of solar panels. Under the agreement, Solarcycle will recycle EDF’s solar panels that are damaged or broken during the construction and operation of EDF’s solar sites in North America. Solarcycle has said that its process allows for 95% of the value of a solar panel to be extracted and recycled. Amongst others, Solarcycle recovers aluminum, copper, glass, silicon, and silver from old solar panels. The idea behind the collaboration is to close EDF’s loop for their solar energy systems. Solarcycle’s recycling plant is located in Texas. Notably, the recycled raw materials won there from EDF’s solar panels will be sold to various solar manufacturers in North America, rather than reused specifically by EDF.


 

The potential for e-waste recycling


In 2022, recoverable natural resources from e-waste worth US$ 62 billion were left unaccounted for globally. While these resources are strategically valuable, they were dumped or wasted in huge quantities. Currently, only 1% of the global demand for rare earth elements is met through e-waste recycling. This means that most countries are heavily dependent on a select few countries for the rare earth elements they need for future technologies. Amongst others, rare earth elements are needed for e-mobility and renewable energy technologies. The Global E-waste Monitor 2024 finds that “if countries could bring the e-waste collection and recycling rates to 60% by 2030, the benefits […] would exceed costs by more than US $38 billion”. As e-waste contains hazardous and toxic components, proper collection would also minimize the risks to the environment and to human health.

 

Over the course of the following three newsletters, Christine Nikander and Saskia Tykkyläinen will be exploring the importance of sustainable design for a just transition. If you want to be notified when the newsletters come out, please subscribe.


 

About the author


Christine Nikander is the founder of the environmental and social sustainability consultancy, Palsa & Pulk. She studied law at the universities of Columbia (New York), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Leiden (the Netherlands). Christine has been doing scholarly research into the legal and policy framework surrounding e-waste and conflict minerals since 2015.



 

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