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Increase in solar panel recycling needed to avoid a future environmental hazard

9th March 2023

By: Schalk Burger

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

     

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Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels could result in an environmental hazard in 30 years’ time, as only 10% of the most widely used panel types are recycled in the US, while this data is unknown in South Africa, Stellenbosch Business School Institute for Futures Research (IFR) research assistant Francois Pretorius says.

South Africa imported more than R2.2-billion worth of solar panels during the first half of 2022 and the pace of imports is set to increase dramatically as the country’s energy crisis mounts.

“The issue of recycling these panels has been overlooked. The panels contain toxic substances such as lead, cadmium and other harmful chemicals that are leached into the environment when disposed of in a non-controlled manner. The release of these chemicals, in turn, could drain into the groundwater sources, potentially contaminating drinking water. Further, solar waste is projected to increase by at least 4 000% over the coming decade.”

Solar panels have an average lifespan of about 20 to 30 years, owing to the solar panels' efficiency decreasing over time and, therefore, requiring replacement. Solar panel recycling is a relatively new concept, and South Africa’s need to recycle these panels is a significant long-term problem with recycling plants unequipped to deal with them, Pretorius notes.

“Buy-in and effective communication between all relevant stakeholders, including government, consumers and producers are of pivotal importance. With current projections anticipating an increase in the global solar panel recycling market value from $78-million in 2021 to $1.8-billion by 2031, the timely establishment of this network is both an environmental and economic imperative,” he emphasises.

“It is also about time that South Africa manages to reap the potential rewards of its previous power-generating mistakes,” he avers.

Additionally, with the government’s newly announced tax incentive programme to assist businesses and individuals in transitioning to clean energy through solar panel usage, roofs covered in solar panels are, consequently, set to become as ubiquitous as electric fencing in most South African suburbs, he adds.

The low recycling rate is attributable to solar PV panels not generating the same types of waste as other easily recyclable products, Pretorius says.

“Most recycling plants are unequipped to deal with them. The recycling processes involved also generate large amounts of glass containing toxic dust in conjunction with the emission of other harmful gasses such as nitrogen oxide.

“The technology and materials employed in solar panel manufacturing are correspondingly constantly evolving, which leaves recyclers playing a constant game of catch-up,” he highlights.

The recycling process for solar panels is also energy intensive and, most importantly, the recycling process currently costs more than the potential value of the recycled end products, he emphasises.

It is uncertain whether amendments to the National Environmental Management Waste Act banning all waste electronic and electrical equipment from landfill and Extended Producer Responsibility regulations of 2021 will prove effective, as it necessitates the establishment of an entirely novel value chain that includes the collection, transportation, sifting, recycling and sale of recycled solar panel materials, he adds.

Meanwhile, the mainstream recycling processes for solar panels developed thus far allow for the recycling of the three main solar panel components, namely aluminium, glass and plastic, equating to more than 90% of a solar panel’s total composition.

“Veolia, which has Europe's first solar panel recycling plant, recently announced their ability to recycle more than 95% of solar panel materials effectively. This is a boon for the European circular economy, as the recovered materials are consequently sold off to various industrial sector players across the continent. However, the global recycling rate remains very low,” Pretorius notes.

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online

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