Solar Panel Recycling: Let’s Close The Loop

At this year’s West Coast Green conference in San Francisco, Bill McDonough gave a rousing call–to-action keynote speech in which he proclaimed that we do not have an energy problem, but what we do have is a materials problem. He went on to say that the carbon in the environment is in the wrong place. Instead of leaving it in the ground, we have mined and burned this ancient material, and polluted our skies.  Long ago, when we first discovered that carbon from the ground could provide energy, humankind was arguably unaware of the consequences of this practice. However, that same excuse cannot be made today.

Ask any NASA scientist about how he or she would power a colony on another planet, and you would probably be told that solar energy is the key – not carbon. The sun, a giant nuclear fusion reactor, provides more than enough solar energy to power the earth, even when factoring in huge population growth. In reality though, solar energy will be one of several renewables (e.g., wind and geothermal) used to supply the estimated six terawatts of energy needed to power the earth.

The question is: How do we deploy solar on a global scale without causing mass destruction and pollution? Many solar opponents point to the heavy metals used in the manufacture of solar panels as a large negative for a technology that calls itself “green.”  Indeed, we should be searching for non-toxic solutions but what if, in the meantime, all solar panel and component manufacturers were responsible for collecting andrecycling all of their products at the products’ end-of-life? This is what McDonough has called “cradle to cradle.”  McDonough, most famous for his 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, is a longtime proponent for designing and manufacturing products without waste. He argues that nature does not have waste and, thus, there is no reason for humans to accept that waste is an inevitable part of life. In the current system, most products are manufactured, distributed, sold, used, and discarded as waste in landfills. In a “cradle to cradle” world, products would be manufactured, distributed, sold, used and then returned to the manufacturer to be disassembled and re-manufactured into new products. In this world, manufacturers would design their products for easy recycling, and harmful compounds (such as the heavy metals in solar panels) would remain in a closed-loop system and stop polluting the natural biosphere.

In Europe, an association called PV Cycle was founded in 2007 to deal with this very issue. The aim of the association is to create a voluntary, industry-wide take-back and recycling program for end-of-life modules in Europe and, in doing so, to establish an exemplary business model. To date, 99 solar manufacturers have joined. With the exception of a few independent solar panel recyclers, the U.S. does not have a recycling program or association that rivals PV Cycle. Let’s hope there is something in the works.

If you would like to find out more about how you can take advantage of solar energy, visit us a Residential Solar 101, we are here to help.

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