Updated: Apr 9
We currently live in a linear economy where we take resources from the earth and then dump them back into a landfill. The goal of zero waste is to move to a circular economy where we eliminate the trash. The idea of the circular economy is that it mimics the natural cycles in nature. This means that everything has a purpose and nothing is “wasted”.
Instead of discarding resources, we create a system where all resources can be resumed fully back into the system. - Kathryn on Going Zero Waste
Looks like a great idea on paper, but it’s almost unachievable to implement in our current society. However, the zero-waste system is not about being perfect, it is about doing our best to have a positive impact on the environment. So, what zero-waste has to do with the solar panels’ life cycle?
Most solar panels have an average lifespan of 25 years, however, we need to think that there are cases where the panels are discarded early because of damage, manufacture defect or replacement for newer models. Those decommissioned panels become big, bulky sheets of electronic waste (Source: Wired.com). Most manufacturers take the panels back in case they fail early, but that’s not always the case. Some panels end up going into a landfill.
There are a total of 3,991,100 small-scale PV systems installed in New South Wales alone as of January 31st 2021 (Source: Clean Energy Regulator). Many installations from the early 2000s are set to reach end-of-life soon, when those panels reach their end-of-life its most likely that they will end up in the ground.
According to ABC News, a few states have already banned solar e-waste from going into landfill, however, these bans do not regulate how the Australian solar industry should manage its waste.
To avoid hazardous panels materials go to the environment and to close the loop in the energy cycle, the next mission of the solar panel industry is the safe management of end-of-life solar products. That’s where the zero-waste system plays its role.
By applying aspects of the zero-waste system to the management of solar panels’ end-of-life we can redesign the solar panels' life cycle so that all products are reused or repurposed.
The metals and glass have significant value by being reused, especially the silver paste as the quantity contained in solar panels is projected to make up a large fraction of the world’s total available supply in the future. It may also be possible to recover intact solar cells for reuse if economical processes to dismantle the panels without breaking the cells can be developed. (Source: Renew.org.au)
There are potential for recycling, reusing, and repurposing solar materials, what we need is a government scheme that guarantees an economically viable solution for people and sellers to ensure the safe disposal of solar products. Right now the cost of recycling is higher than landfill, and the value of recovered materials is smaller than the original, so there’s limited interest in recycling.
Also, recycling solar materials requires a huge amount of energy in the process which likely come from fossil fuels, so we’re back to stage one. This is why the solution for solar waste management can be addressed using aspects of the zero-waste system such as reusing or value-added recovery or repurposing of materials.
We are not advocating for a perfect solar life cycle management system because that's utopian, but we need to strike for a system where we minimise our impact on the environment as much as possible.
Clean energy is a step towards a future with a better environment, but if we are not conscious about the long-term impact of solar panels, we are not actually preserving the environment but creating more problems. This is why zero-waste also applies to the life cycle of solar products. Zero-waste helps us to rethink the whole system and act towards more sustainable living. Again, it’s not about perfection, it’s about being conscious of our overall impact on the environment.
At Energy Culture we try to recycle as much as possible any waste originating from our work. However, we acknowledge that we are far from perfect. This is why we use our platform to share awareness about problems that impact our environment, so we can build together a brighter future.