Individuals can effectively source renewable energy and shrink their carbon footprint when using solar panels. These devices convert the sun’s energy, a limitless resource, into electricity to fuel our homes, cars and appliances. However, current options have a temporary life cycle, which adds to customer concerns.
Many individuals believe the expiration date on renewable energy systems is counterintuitive. If panels only last a few decades, where do they go when they expire? Solar customers purchase their devices to reduce waste, not create more.
Fortunately, disposal options for solar panels extend beyond landfills. Residents can recycle various materials found within renewable energy devices. We can add to these systems’ sustainability by giving their components a second life.
Last year, the media released unsettling images of the wind turbine disposal process. The pictures displayed hundreds of propellors placed in shallow graves that were then covered with dirt. Many renewable energy system owners responded with disbelief, pushing them to question, “Are companies burying solar panels, too?”
There are no current mandates requiring panel owners to recycle their systems after their efficiency depletes. Residential solar panel use is still new, and many have yet to reach their expiration date. That said, recycling components is not the present norm.
Many of the residential panels that owners dispose of end up in landfills. The buildup of e-waste pollutes our environment, causing ecological destruction. We have the resources and knowledge to reduce this waste by developing accessible solar panel recycling systems.
Many renewable energy device components can be recycled, so the future looks bright for solar waste management. Because accessibility to panel recycling is currently limited, many individuals believe they should hold off on purchasing solar. It still efficiently reduces atmospheric destruction and your utility bill, so their benefits are high. With advocation and technological advancements, sustainable management should exist when devices reach the end of their life cycle.
Recycling Panel Components
Aluminum and glass make up 80% of solar panels and are recyclable materials. The devices also contain gallium and indium, rare elements, which companies may extract through recycling. When we reuse these materials, we limit the need for outsourcing, which occurs when companies exploit foreign land and workers for limited resource extraction.
This process both degrades economies and emits air pollutants into the atmosphere. By recycling materials in their reuse region, we can reduce overseas exploitation and carbon emissions.
Aluminum is a simple material to recycle and is widely used in solar panel production. You can recycle it infinitely with no degradation to its quality, creating a closed loop. About 75% of the aluminum produced in the U.S. comes from recycled materials.
When you recycle aluminum from solar panels, you save 90% of the energy needed to produce it from scrap. You can also give your renewable energy systems a second life by extracting usable materials.
Glass is another 100% recyclable component of solar panels with an unlimited life cycle. The element can be melted down and reformed endlessly to make new objects, also creating a closed loop. Unlike aluminum, glass recycling facilities are less accessible and require further advancements to repurpose solar panels.
As solar panel purchases increase, companies dedicate more funds to enhancing their green technology. The efficiency of renewable energy systems grew 43 times since 2010. Scientists predict that this number will rise in the next few years as technology advances.
With improvements to solar technology comes a decline in pricing and an increase in recyclability. Scientists are working to enhance glass repurposing systems to recycle all panel elements efficiently. They developed a process that recomposes glass for accessible repurposing.
As scientists experiment with solar panel materials over time, they can create more sustainable systems.
What Can Solar Customers Do?
Even though the solar panel recycling systems currently lack efficiency, that does not mean customers should stop supporting renewable energy devices. By the end of your system’s life cycle, the repurposing technology should be more advanced. Outside of investing in solar, you can also talk to your local government officials about increasing residential accessibility to recycling facilities.
Advocating for better renewable energy device waste management can push representatives to make impactful changes. You can also talk to your local recycling facilities about increasing their glass processing efficiency. Speaking out about sustainable progress helps shed light on these issues.
Jane is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co and an environmental writer covering green technology, sustainability and environmental news.