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The Complete Guide to Solar Panel Recycling

Your installer is legally obliged to take and recycle your defunct solar panels

More than 80% of each material in a panel is typically recycled 

The UK has one solar panel recycling centre – Recycle Solar, in Scunthorpe

You might have heard: the popularity of solar panels is skyrocketing – whilst the cost of panels has plummeted over the past decade. With people on every continent going bonkers for the power-giving properties of the sun, this rocket doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon. 

The world’s solar power capacity is expected to balloon in size over the next 30 years, especially with the advent of new solar technologies.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), it will grow from 222 gigawatts (GW) in 2015 to a whopping 4,500 by 2050. That’ll be 16% of global electricity powered by the sun

However, this worldwide splurge on solar panels has created a problem for us further on down the line: ‘end-of-life management’. In the mid 2030s, a lot of solar panels are expected to conk out for good, and it may hit us like a tonne of silicon bricks.

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Infographic showing the recycling process of solar panels from start to finish

Are solar panels recyclable?

Solar panels are absolutely recyclable.

They’re constructed almost entirely from aluminium, glass, and silicon, which are all very easy to break down and use again. This means your green energy machines stay green after their job is done.

People know exactly how to smash panels up and reuse all their bits – it’s just a case of scaling up the industry in preparation for the defunct-solar-panel timebomb. 

If we do it properly, by the late 2030s there’ll be a whole new generation of solar panels built from the remnants of their forefathers, which is quite a beautiful thought.

Glass granulate being extracted from a solar panel during the recycling process

Glass being extracted from a solar panel (Credit: PV Cycle)

How do you recycle your solar panels in the UK?

Give your defunct solar panels to your solar panel installer.

Under EU regulations (which still apply after Brexit), your solar panel installer is legally obliged to take your defunct solar panels off you, or at least fund a Distributor Take-back Scheme (DTS).

Every solar panel company (importer or manufacturer) in the UK must also be part of a Producer Compliance Scheme (PCS), such as the Government-approved PV CYCLE. This ensures that all solar panels are collected and recycled properly. 

So, get on the phone to your solar panel installer – they’ll know what to do. It’s most likely they’ll take your panels to a Designated Collection Facility (check out the DCF database to find one near you), before the panels go on to a recycling plant.

If your installer has gone out of business, you can arrange for your solar panels to be taken to one of these centres – again, free of charge – through a service like PV Cycle.

There you have it: you barely have to do anything to get your solar panels recycled.

Are solar panels actually recycled in the UK?

Solar panels are indeed recycled in the UK.

There’s only one recycling centre on these shores that operates on an industrial scale: Recycle Solar, located in Scunthorpe.

This factory recycles hundreds of solar panels per year, though this number is set to increase significantly in the next 5-10 years, as more panels come to the end of their lifespan.

Recycle Solar doesn’t deal with all the defunct solar panels in the UK, as some are sent to a solar recycling plant in south-eastern France that’s owned by utilities giant Veolia.

How much does solar panel recycling cost?

Solar panel recycling costs you nothing. All you need to do is ask your installer to pick them up, and they’ll do so for free.

There is yet to be any significant research into the wider economic cost of solar panel recycling. According to Gavin Heath of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, recycling solar panels in the US costs around $10-20 per module, which is pretty cheap.

What’s the typical lifetime of a solar panel?

The typical lifetime of a solar panel is at least 25 years, and they typically stay effective until they’re 35-40 years old.

But what actually happens to put an end to a solar panel’s stint in the sunshine? Research by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2014 showed us the most common causes of solar panel expiry. They were:

  • Optical failure (20% of cases)
  • Power loss (19% of cases)
  • J-box and cable failure (19% of cases)
  • Glass breakage (10% of cases)

There are lots of other minor causes, but these are the key four. Generally, homeowners can look forward to having solar panels for decades, making the cost of solar panels worth it. According to IRENA, the majority of solar panels average a lifetime of 30-40 years.

What makes them so resilient? Well, they don’t have any moving parts, meaning there are no ‘weak spots’. They’re also surprisingly easy to fix (in most cases), so don’t give up on your panels straight away if they have a wobble – contact a nearby solar panel company for help. 

Solar panels do tend to lose their efficiency very slowly, but this usually only starts to happen after the first 20-25 years. 

In short: solar panels are fairly sturdy things. You pay a lot for them, but they’re with you for the long haul.

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The solar panel recycling process

There are two different types of panel that dominate the solar power industry: silicon-based (92% market share) and thin-film (7% market share).

The recycling process is a little different depending on panel type, so we’ll go into both.

Silicon-based solar panel recycling

1. Material separation

The first thing that happens is material separation. Solar panels are composed of several different parts, so these need dividing up.

The panel’s aluminium frame and glass casing are disassembled and sent their separate ways. 100% of the aluminium and 95% of the glass is used again. Not bad.


2. Thermal processing

The temperature is then ramped up to a toasty 500°C, which evaporates the small plastic components and easily allows for the cell modules to be physically separated. Around 80% of the cell modules are reused. 


3. Silicon moulding

Finally, you’re left with the silicon wafers. These are etched away and smelted into reusable slabs. 85% of the silicon is repurposed for new solar panels, but 15% of it is lost in the process.

Thin-film solar panel recycling

1. The panels are broken down

Thin-film solar panel recycling is a little more violent. 

The panels are thrown into a shredder, followed by a hammermill. It’s important that each panel is reduced to 4-5mm pieces, so that the lamination keeping the materials together breaks.


2. The materials are separated

Unlike the process for silicon-based panels, here you’re left with a mixture of solid and liquid materials, so a huge rotating screw is used to separate them. 

The semiconductor material (usually Cadmium telluride, CdTe, or Copper indium gallium selenide, CIGS) is removed from the glass with acid and peroxide, and then the glass is rinsed with water.


3. The parts are reused

Around 95% of the semiconductor material and 90% of the glass is reused. You’ll notice that thin-film solar panel recycling rescues more of the semiconductor material, but less of the glass. 

There are issues surrounding the toxicity of cadmium and its threat to the environment, so silicon-based solar panels are generally considered the more eco-friendly option when it comes to recycling.

Benefits of solar panel recycling

Here are all the reasons why solar panel recycling is officially an excellent idea.

The panels aren’t going to landfill. Burying waste in the ground is bad, and reusing old materials lowers the demand for new materials.

Certain rare elements are rescued. The Earth’s supply of gallium and indium is actually steadily depleting, and we (currently) use them in solar panels. If we just bury the gallium and indium, we’ll eventually run out.

There’s a lot of money involved. According to IRENA, the raw materials we could recover from solar panels by 2030 is worth about $450 million – which could fund around 60 million new solar panels.

Employment opportunities. As we’ve already said, the world needs to set up a proper solar panel recycling industry, and pronto. Get this thing going, and there’ll be a lot of jobs created.

Which countries recycle solar panels the most?

European countries recycle solar panels the most, by far.

The EU’s Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which the UK has also signed up to, means it’s effectively illegal to throw solar panels in landfills.

Every country that follows the directive has a target of reusing or recycling 80% of large electronic equipment, which includes solar panels.

The US now has 23 solar panel recycling centres across the country, having made great strides over the past few years to improve its 10% recycling rate.

China has also drawn up plans to create a solar panel recycling infrastructure by the end of the decade. That’s good news, since its current recycling capacity is non-existent.

What next?

If you’ve currently got solar panels sitting on your roof, rest assured that they’ve got rebirth ahead of them. Once they give up the ghost, they’ll be broken down and built up into brand new panels for another home – perhaps even yours, which would be weird. 

If you don’t currently own solar panels, but you think it’s about time you joined the solar power movement, this is a great time to get on board.

After all, 69% of people are likely or very likely to buy or rent a property with solar panels, according to our latest National Home Energy Survey.

And we can help. Enter your details into this short form, and you’ll hear from trusted, local installers with bespoke solar panel quotes.

Solar panel recycling: FAQs

Many solar panels come with a 25-year warranty, but most continue working after this point, up to 35-40 years.

But if they’ve come to the end of their effective lifespan, your solar panels can be recycled for free. Just get in touch with your solar panel installer, or if they’re no longer in business, use a company like PV Cycle to get your panels taken to a Designated Collection Facility.

From there, they’re sent to be recycled.

Contact your solar panel installer, as they’re legally required to pick up your panels and send them to be recycled, free of charge.

If your installer doesn’t exist anymore, get in touch with a free service like PV Cycle, which will take your panels to a Designated Collection Facility – the first step on their recycling journey.

It’s completely free to dispose of solar panels in the UK.

All you have to do is ask your solar panel installer to pick them up and send them to be recycled, and they legally have to do so without charging you a penny.

If they’ve gone out of business, you can use a free service like PV Cycle to get your panels taken to a Designated Collection Facility, from where they’re recycled.

Written by:
Charlie has been researching and writing about the home energy market for over five years, and he has been the editor of The Eco Experts since 2021. Charlie's thoughts on solar panels have seen him featured in various publications, including The Times, Ideal Home, and Grand Designs Magazine. Ever since he can remember, Charlie has worried about the planet, and he one day dreams of owning a solar power farm.
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