As new, more efficient photovoltaic cells become cheaper and more common, and they spread to more and more installations at every scale, they come with a future problem that could get out of hand in the United States, or it could be a source of great opportunity in the industry: solar waste recycling.
According to The MIT Technology Review, the materials used in solar panels could be worth $2 billion a year by 2050, with the amount of decommissioned cells reaching 80 million metric tons. An analysis by Research and Markets predicts that the market for recycled solar panels and parts could grow over 18 percent per year and be worth over $100 million by 2027.
This value can be captured by manufacturers redesigning their products for greater recyclability ahead of regulators — especially since, as prices fall and efficiencies improve, consumers will be more likely to want to upgrade before the 30-year lifespan of their panels is up, according to Harvard Business Review.
The solar waste problem
Solar waste is generated from both cells that reach the end of their useful lives and from cells that get destroyed in natural disasters. In 2017, Hurricane Maria destroyed several solar installations in Puerto Rico, resulting in tons of waste as panels were smashed by high winds or flying debris or were uprooted from their housings and became debris themselves.
The waste that resulted presented difficulties not only because of its quantity but because it can’t go into normal landfills on account of the toxic chemicals used in solar cell production: heavy metals like cadmium can leach into the environment through water. To make things worse, much of the United States’ e-waste has historically been exported to China, where low labor costs and limited environmental protections meant that some valuable materials were recovered and the rest caused