Complicated, long and difficult? Rumour spread by solar energy sceptics suggests that solar panels are not easily recycled. What is the real situation? Let's take a look at the recycling of solar panels in 3 key steps.

Solar panel recycling: an increasingly well organised system

Solar panels have a minimum life span of 20 years and the issue of recycling old or defective panels remains a concern. The process may seem delicate but in reality recycling is simpler than it might seem. Good news are: a solar panel can be recycled up to 85%.

First of all, there are several types of photovoltaic solar panels: the recycling method will therefore vary according to the type of panel (thermal or chemical treatment). To have your solar panels recycled, they will first have to be dismantled. You can either do it yourself or ask a specialist. Then, bring your equipment (or have it transported to) a collection point. Although solar installations are still rather new, the network for collecting solar panels in Europe is relatively well developed. The European organisation PV CYCLE has created a system of free collection points. Since 2014, proper disposal and recycling of solar panels has been obligatory in France.

Solar panels with 85% recycled materials

The elements composing the photovoltaic panels are recycled separately. A large quantity of the materials used can be recycled and then reused in the manufacture of new panels or in other industrial processes. Aluminium, for example, is infinitely recyclable. Glass is a 100% recyclable material without loss of quality or quantity. Plastics can be recycled or recovered to produce energy. Only some plastics are not reusable and lost.

Thus, recycling makes it possible to recover a significant number of raw materials that can easily be given a second life.

Ecological challenges for the coming decades

The main challenge of recycling the photovoltaic sector is to respect the environment. Indeed, if solar panels were not recycled and left in a state of waste, they would have a significant environmental impact by degrading and releasing toxic components. As explained above, recycling also makes it possible to re-use old materials for the creation of new solar panels, the objective being to reduce as much as possible the ecological footprint of their life cycle.
In 2014, 10,500 tonnes of solar panels were recycled in Europe and it is estimated that this figure will increase to 130,000 tonnes per year by 2030. Recycling solar panels is currently rather unprofitable. However, it could unfold its potential in the future and create many new jobs and therefore appears to be possibly a very profitable business model for the future.
In recent years, the management of end-of-life solar panels has become increasingly important in the consciousness of consumers and producers, both nationally and internationally. Allowing a reuse of raw materials, recycling gives a renewable aspect to a sector that wants to produce clean energies. The economic performance, which is still weak at the moment, should increase impressively in a few years' time.