Most modern PV modules are warranted to produce electricity for 20 to 25 years and have a projected lifetime of 35 years or more. But what happens to modules that die prematurely due to transportation, installation, or other damage, or when their life span is up?
Until recently, the recycling of broken or end-of-life PV modules was not mandatory in Europe. In 2012, the European Union (EU) Parliament officially changed the guidelines for its Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. Under the amendments, 85% of all used PV modules must be collected by the “producers” at the end of their lives and at least 80% of the solar module (by weight) must be recovered. Who constitutes a producer is at the discretion of each of the 27 member states, which must implement the new law by February 2014.
Today, the majority of producers selling in the European market offer voluntary take-back and recycling through one of two programs, PV Cycle or CERES. But now, with the introduction of the new WEEE directive, each producer will need to guarantee its PV modules’ take-back and recycling.
European solar companies started PV Cycle to be proactive, hoping to avoid formal inclusion in the WEEE. Some companies were dissatisfied with the business model and founded CERES. Since 2010, nonprofit Brussels-based PV Cycle has collected and recycled more than 5,600 tons of PV waste (80 tons in 2010; 1,400 tons in 2011; and more than 4,000 tons in 2012 and early 2013). The majority of collected modules have come from Germany.
The service is free to module owners, supported by annual fees (ranging between €1,000 per year to €25,000) paid by members—more than 500 module manufacturers, importers, and associations as of March 2013, up from 236 in 2011. Discarded modules are collected at 283 collection points throughout Europe (up from 185 in 2011). After collection, the modules are taken to recycling plants for dismantling and processing. Recovered materials include glass, ferrous and nonferrous metals, and certain semiconductor materials, junction boxes, and cables.
Paris-based CERES—a nonprofit association created under French law—has collected about 600 tons of PV waste since 2012. The company claims to be the only program in Europe that recycles every element of a PV module, including the cell. Like PV Cycle, the collection program is also free to end users, supported by annual membership fees (between €600 and €5,000). So far, the program has signed up 50‑plus producers, importers, and integrators. Waste, including manufacturing scrap, can be deposited with electronic waste management companies that already have necessary permits.
Recycling and recovery companies in Europe are stepping up to meet the new WEEE directive. Many waste treatment companies are exploring the new business opportunity. Most have established collection systems for e-waste but would need to add technology to handle to PV items, according to Karsten Wambach, a PV waste consultant in Germany and the former president of PV Cycle.
“There are some pilot activities running, but it might be too early for significant investments due to the small quantities of PV waste present and the highly dispersive waste streams. With current technology, there will be no problem to fulfill the targets of the waste laws,” Wambach says. “One can expect the market to steadily grow, with the first significant amounts coming back in the 2020s.”
In the United States, end-of-life disposal of solar products is governed by the Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and state policies that govern waste. To be governed by RCRA, modules must be classified as hazardous waste, which means that a product fails the Toxicity Characteristics Leach Procedure (TCLP) test. It all depends on whether the chemicals (such as lead or cadmium) leach out when the glass and other materials are crushed. Because many companies have phased out or reduced lead content to trace levels and have improved manufacturing to reduce hazardous chemical content, most newer modules may pass the TCLP test. Older modules may not.