Bright Ideas Blog, Renewable Energy Strategy, Solar, Sustainability

Why You Should Care About Solar Recycling, and What to Do Next

Solar energy generates 4 percent of the world’s electricity, according to The International Energy Agency  — the result of record-breaking growth in clean energy over the last 20-plus years. That’s the good news. At the same time, 8 million metric tons of solar panels are nearing the end of their (25-30 year) life expectancy and could be headed to landfills by 2030. Not so good.

Preparing for this onslaught of decommissioned solar panels requires us to advance the solar panel recycling process. It’s a critical step to fortify the solar industry’s effectiveness and reputation as a sustainable source of clean energy. 

Current disposal methods are inefficient — and can be toxic

Solar panels can be recycled, but only 10 percent currently are. The rest go to landfills because of the expense and complexity of recycling. There are two reasons why this is a problem.

1.Many solar panels contain cadmium and lead, which are considered hazardous waste. 

 2. Not recycling solar panels wastes valuable materials, driving the need for new raw materials. Proper recycling could recover them. 

Solar panel recycling is complex and expensive

The process of recycling solar panels involves separating a solar panel’s materials. Today, this is still too difficult and expensive. NREL estimates the per panel costs at $1-$5 (landfill) versus $5-$45 (recycling). 

Methods of Solar Panel Recycling  


This involves dismantling solar panels to extract their components — removing the panel’s aluminum frame, for example. The remaining glass, silicon, and wiring are then ground separately. The success of this process depends on how well a panel’s components are separated.


A promising new method separates a panel’s elements on a molecular level. The French start-up called ROSI Solar is using this technology.

Reusing is another facet of recycling where materials are extracted from a solar panel so they can have another life.

Good news: Solar panel recycling is now a growth market

Recyclable materials from solar panels are valued at $170 million. And that number is set to grow exponentially. CleanTechnica predicts they’ll be worth more than $2.7 billion in 2030.

The solar market’s growth is accelerating the recycling market expansion. A win/win for consumers and businesses for two reasons: It will lower prices and preserve valuable raw materials.

The latest solar recycling technology

One start-up claims to have an even better solution.  Solarcycle says its proprietary technology can extract 95 percent of high-value metals in solar panels and reuse or repurpose them in the supply chain. They say each recycled solar panel saves 97 pounds of CO2

More good news: Government policies are making it easier to recycle 

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has developed a new recycling initiative aiming to be simpler and less expensive. They’ve invested $56 million, which they anticipate will incentivize the manufacturing and recycling of solar. 

States are taking action.

Washington, by 2025, will require solar companies to take back and recycle solar panels at no cost to the consumer.

The California Solar Initiative (CSI) incentivizes solar manufacturers to participate in recycling programs. 

Massachusetts and New York developed initiatives to inform the public about the correct disposal of solar panels. 

Solar takeback programs 

More solar companies have instituted takeback programs that cover the cost of recycling and disposal of end-of-life solar panels.

One Company’s Ambitious Recycling Program

SunPower solar installation
SunPower has long been a leader in solar energy installations and solar panel recycling. (Photo credit: Woody Welch)

SunPower is a leader in the solar industry and has modeled ESG values for many years. Their recycling program takes a multi-pronged approach.

  • A production process that minimizes waste and extracts valuable materials to be reused. They’ve incorporated recycled materials in solar panel frames. 
  • A recycling collection program where customers can return old or damaged solar panels.
  • Partnering with a third-party certified recycling facility that agrees to its environmental and social responsibility standards.

What to do next

A new landscape of companies are planting the seeds of progress for solar panel recycling. Their efforts, coupled with government incentives and new technology, are moving us in the right direction. 

A reminder about the crucial need to reuse precious metals in solar panels. For example, two rare elements used, gallium and indium, are expensive, and there is concern that their supply is increasingly limited. Recovering them for reuse will lessen supply chain problems, ultimately reducing the cost of solar.

Check to see if your solar panel supplier has a solar takeback program. Ask questions about their supply chain sourcing strategy. If you’re a solar panel manufacturer, do your due diligence. Make sure your products are made sustainably, and if you don’t yet have a recycling strategy, build one.

Looking for expert clean energy marketing and sustainability advice? Talk to CPMG.  

Clean Power Marketing Group works with clean energy innovators, helping them grow in all the right ways. 

Contact us to learn more.