April 20, 2022 10:12 AM
by Drew L. Johnstone
Solar panels are very reliable and long-lasting investments that save consumers money and require little to no maintenance for 25-35 years. However, given the scale of deployment over the last 15-20 years, there is and will continue to be a growing demand for effective processes for removal, dismantling and recycling or reuse of solar panels at the end of their useful life.
Solar panels are removed from operation either from degradation after decades of use, system upgrades, damage from extreme weather, remodeling, or damage during transit. To date, broken or unused solar panels were being stockpiled by solar contractors, dumped in hazardous waste landfills, or worse, illegally dumped.
Up until 2021, solar panels were classified as Hazardous Waste by the State Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). In January of 2021, solar panels were reclassified as Universal Waste, making it easier and less expensive for waste management companies to haul and process solar panels for recycling.
The Pilot Program
On June 27, 2018, the City was awarded $50,000 in funding from the Household Hazardous Waste Grant Program of the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). The City worked with the California Product Stewardship Council and other partners to survey stakeholders, conduct outreach, and coordinate panel pickups from homeowners and solar installers. The CA Conservation Corps picked up and hauled panels and a Universal Waste management company called CalMicro, recycled the panels.
Overall, 281 working and non-working panels were collected from 8 locations for an estimated total recycling weight of 7,920 lbs. The cost for hauling and recycling solar panels was about $0.62 per pound or $17 per panel. An additional 78 working panels were diverted for reuse.
Since the pilot is concluded, the City does not have staff or budget to dedicate to processing solar panels at this time, however, there are Universal Waste recyclers in Southern California that are certified to process solar panels and the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Los Angeles is accepting unwanted working panels. The California Product Stewardship Council created a website dedicated to the proper handling of unwanted solar panels: calpsc.org/solarpanelstewardship.
Staff recommends that the State or Federal government implement a strategy for Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) to create a shared responsibility for end-of-life solar panel management between the producers, and all entities involved in the product chain, instead of the general public; while encouraging product design or redesign that minimizes the negative impacts on human health and the environment at every stage of the solar panel’s lifecycle. This allows the costs of processing and recycling or disposal to be incorporated into the total cost of a solar panel. This also places primary responsibility on the producer, or brand owner, who ultimately makes design and marketing decisions for their products. It also creates a setting for recycled commodities markets to emerge, which helps support a true circular economy.
Drew L. Johnstone