Recycle solar panels and batteries for a healthier planet: Griffith University report

Griffith University says circular economy needed to dispose of solar waste safely.

Australia needs to recycle solar panels and batteries once they reach retirement age in a clean, sustainable way. This will assist in achieving what researchers term, a “circular economy”.

A report by Griffith University researchers from the Gold Coast campus of the Queenland private university says the nation needs to shift from a linear to a circular supply chain to avoid harming humans and the planet.

The report highlights the problems of, and solutions tom the looming chemical ‘stockpile’ which is set to grow as our solar panels and batteries reach the end of their lives.

The problem: Stockpiles of hazardous waste

The research, by Griffith University’s engineering department, was published earlier this year in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

Circular economy needed to recycle growing mountain of solar waste.

Griffith University is consulting Sustainability Victoria to work up a smart solar waste recycling system.

It says Australia faces large volumes of waste as solar products recycle. This is because, like all electronic products, rooftop PV panels and solar batteries contain potentially toxic materials.

Although these are harmless during the products’ lives, recycling solar panels once the product retires requires special attention.

In fact, Australia will have more than 1,500 kilotonnes of retired solar panel waste by 2050 according to the research.

Solar panels have a lifespan of around 20-25 years. This means the first generation of retired panels is already in the system.

However, retired solar batteries will also become a recycling issue in around six years. For example, the Tesla Powerwall 2 comes with a 10-year warranty, so first generation Powerwalls will start to retire around 2025.

Circular economy to recycle solar panels and batteries

The research shows a sustainable supply chain with smart recycling will  reduce harm to humans and the environment. It will also limit mining of scarce natural resources to manufacture solar panels and batteries.

This ‘circular economy’ should include everyone involved in making, selling and buying solar panels and batteries, the researchers claim. It can then:

  • Reduce the need for new raw materials
  • Extend the life of solar products
  • Maintain high quality of solar panels and batteries
  • Prioritise reuse
  • Use renewable energy throughout the process

Researchers say federal and state environment ministers have already agreed to update the National Waste Policy to include circular economy principles.

Sustainable action on solar waste underway

Australia has little capacity to deal with solar energy waste at present, the researchers claim. Meanwhile, countries like China are refusing to accept overseas solar waste.

Industry, business and consumers also currently have few incentives to recycle solar panels and other waste products.

However, South Australia and the ACT have banned certain e-waste (electronic waste) categories from landfill. Victoria also says no e-waste can enter landfill from July 1 this year.

Meanwhile, Sustainability Victoria wants solar products to be fully included in the Government’s Product Stewardship Act. Those who make, sell and use solar products would therefore share responsibility for their safe disposal.

Griffith University researchers also consulted Sustainability Victoria to help them formulate proposals.