Collection & Recycling

All photovoltaic (PV) modules available on the European market can be disposed of, notwithstanding the type of technology used. Most parts of a solar module can be recycled, including glass, semiconductor materials, ferrous and non-ferrous metals.

The modules present on today’s market belong to two different categories, silicon and non-silicon based, which determine the recycling process to be used.

  • For silicon-based modules, aluminium frames and junction boxes are dismantled manually at the beginning of the process. The module is subsequently crushed and its several components are separated, allowing recovering up to 80% of the panel. Since a large quantity of these modules is composed of glass, it is not unusual for glass recyclers to be able to intervene in the recycling process.
  • Non-silicon based panels require the use of diverse recycling technologies. Cadmium telluride (CdTe) panels e.g. – a particularly common type – are first crushed into different fractions, much like non-silicon modules. But they also use chemical baths to separate the various semiconductor materials, allowing for the recovery of 95% such components. Recycling technologies for this type of panels have been widely increasing in recent years. For copper indium selenide (CIS) and Copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS) photovoltaic modules similar chemical bath treatments apply.

Among the recycling technologies used to treat a PV module, flat glass recycling is particularly common.

This shows that photovoltaic modules are substantially different from other electronic and electrical equipment regulated under WEEE. Approximately 99% of today’s collected end-of-life PV modules has suffered some sort of transportation or installation damage. In most cases the glass is broken and, therefore, cannot be repaired or exchanged in an economical and sustainable manner anymore.

In addition, contrary to TVs, radios or computers, PV modules only consist of few single components. Replacing parts of or repairing PV modules might result in a performance shortage. In fact, as PV modules are nearly to 100% installed in (several) dozens, it may become difficult to track PV modules that were treated for reuse, resulting in a guarantee/warranty issue. Furthermore, panels need to be safe for use and go through a strong lamination process to be able to stand extreme weather conditions. It must also be highlighted that PV technology goes through rapid technological developments, often resulting in higher efficiencies at a lower price/watt.

Overall, reusing PV panels sometimes becomes a challenging economic option.

Do WEEE specifications completely apply to PV panels?

The recast WEEE Directive defines the minimum proper treatment for the end-of-life equipment as the removal of all fluids and the selective treatment of specific components.

However, none of these requirements can be applied to PV modules. It would be advisable to include into national legislations some minimum requirements for the treatment processes, including the separation and removal of some key components, such as frames, glass, polymers, plastics and metals, including cables. The PV industry is already working on such requirements within the framework of the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardisation (CENELEC), an organisation mandated by the European Commission to develop a European standard for the treatment of WEEE, including PV modules.

Similarly, WEEE prescribes that the targets for recovery and recycling for e-waste will be a percentage calculated by dividing the weight of the collected products by the weight of all WEEE products separately collected for each category. It would be advisable that PV modules were collected separately from other products to take into account their specificities. An alternative solution would be to set new independent targets for PV modules by dividing the weight of the output materials and products after the recovery and recycling process by the input weight entering the facility.

WEEE and waste management programs

The WEEE Directive mandates European countries to adopt PV waste management programs in which Producers are responsible for the take back and recycling of the panels they sell.

Through this obligation, the industry has taken greater responsibility as provider of sustainable products and its responsibilities towards public health and the environment.

The goal of these policies is twofold. First, encourage the industry to develop products that are easier to recycle and use fewer raw materials. Second, it leads Producers to factor in the cost of the collection and end-of-life treatment of their products into the cost paid by the consumers.

The Producers joining these programs will contribute to develop greener products and make recycling more affordable and economically sustainable.

A number of industries producing electronic and electric equipment have already set up their own funded take-back and recycling programs. The automotive industry has pioneered such approach, alongside manufacturers of large domestic appliances such as fridges, freezers and others. The photovoltaic industry has followed this example by getting together and setting up its own privately funded take-back and recycling schemes such as PV CYCLE which has been operating across Europe since 2007.

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