The growing issue of PV system waste
Photovoltaic (PV) systems, including solar panels, inverters and batteries, are being installed in record numbers throughout Australia.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 tonnes of solar panels will enter Australia’s waste stream by 2035. This has the potential to create a hazardous waste management issue, as materials contained within solar panels can leach into soil and groundwater, causing environmental contamination and safety concerns if managed poorly. Keeping these materials out of landfill prevents environmental and human health problems, and rescues valuable resources for reuse.
Compounding the issue is a lack of dedicated processing facilities in Australia that can recover valuable materials contained in PV products.
Sustainability Victoria, with other states and territories, is investigating suitable management options for PV products across their lifecycle.
How is PV system waste currently managed?
Management and disposal vary across each state and territory. In Victoria, this type of waste is considered e-waste and is banned from landfill.
To find out where you can currently recycle solar panels and inverters see the e-waste drop-off points or contact your local council.
Solar panels, inverters and batteries can contain valuable materials like lead and rare earth metals.
The average life span of a solar panel is approximately 21 years and recycling options are currently limited.
There are a number of solar panel recycling services available in Australia, however, at present they can only recycle and reclaim a small percentage: up to 17% of a panel by weight. A solar panel’s aluminium frame and junction box (also known as a terminal box) are the components that are most commonly or easily recycled.
The remaining 83% of a solar panel’s materials (including glass, silicon and polymer back sheeting) are not currently recyclable in Australia.
Inverters can be recycled through Australia’s existing e-waste recycling system. In Victoria, they can be taken to e-waste drop-off points, where they are sent on to an e-waste recycler for recycling and extraction of valuable materials for reuse.
The most common battery storage for solar is lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries, which last between five and 15 years.
Australia has a well-established market for used lead acid batteries and Victoria is home to the country’s only lithium battery recycler, Envirostream.
The Battery Stewardship Council has been appointed by the Queensland Government to design and implement a consistent management approach for batteries in Australia.
Developing a national approach to manage PV systems
A national approach is currently being developed to better manage PV products, with Sustainability Victoria playing a key role, in collaboration with other state and territory governments – as well as businesses and industry stakeholders.
- 2014: Victorian Government commits to ban e-waste from landfill
- 2015: Solar panels are identified as the fastest growing e-waste stream without dedicated recycling infrastructure in the Victorian e-waste market flow and processing capacity analysis
- 2016: PV systems are added to the federal government’s Product Stewardship Act 2011 priority product list
- 2016: The Victorian Government receives endorsement through the Meeting of Environment Ministers to form a national working group to work with the PV industry to develop a national management approach for PV systems
- 2017: The national working group completes a national PV systems market flow and processing capacity analysis for PV system equipment, such as inverters and batteries
- 2018: PV systems stewardship options assessment completed by consultants Equilibrium and Ernst & Young on behalf of the national working group
- 2018: Meeting of all state and territory Environment Ministers endorses the national battery stewardship approach to include PV system batteries
- 2019: Recommendation made by the national working group to remove PV inverter equipment and batteries from the national approach to focus solely on PV panels
- Future: National working group to undertake a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) assessing industry-led and co-regulatory options for solar panels, and the flow-on regulatory and economic impacts
- Future: National working group to make recommendations to state, territory and federal governments on a preferred management approach.
Options for a national approach
To manage the lifecycle of solar infrastructure in Australia, a national framework of shared responsibility is being explored.
Different governments are using product stewardship as a way of assessing and putting into action a management system.
This will involve producers, retailers and consumers taking responsibility for the environmental and health related impacts of solar infrastructure across its lifecycle.
The national working group is exploring three main options available through Australia’s national product stewardship framework.
An industry-led product stewardship scheme is voluntary and would be led by Australia’s PV sector. This means that industry would act voluntarily to reduce the impact their products have on the environment and human health.
These industry-led and funded schemes enable the industry to manage products without regulation – and can involve voluntary product stewardship accreditation.
An example of such an approach is MobileMuster, an industry product stewardship program that aims to keep old mobile phones out of landfill and recycle them in a safe, secure way. MobileMuster was the first accredited program to run under the federal Product Stewardship Act 2011.
Co-regulatory product stewardship schemes combine government regulation and industry action. Government sets the minimum requirements, while industry has some discretion about how these are achieved.
An example is the National Television and Computer Scheme which is a well-established national scheme that provides households and small businesses with a free industry-funded collection and recycling service for televisions and computers. Established in 2011, more than 1,800 collection services have been made available and 290,000 tonnes of TV and computer waste have been recycled. This is on the only co-regulatory scheme in Australia.
Mandatory product stewardship is a legal obligation where certain parties would be required to take certain actions in relation to a product. The scheme would be administered by the federal government. There are currently no mandatory product stewardship schemes in place.
In May 2018, there was an assessment of options to progress a national approach for PV systems in Australia which resulted in the report PV Systems Stewardship Options Assessment.
The assessment report found that:
- Key stakeholders (including PV manufacturers, importers and industry associations) supported a nationally coordinated approach for managing PV system waste
- Solar panel waste is the fastest growing e-waste stream in Australia, with only limited recycling opportunities, and would benefit the most from a product stewardship approach
- Either a voluntary or co-regulatory approach for solar panels may be feasible and are likely to achieve the environmental, health and safety objectives of the Product Stewardship Act 2011, improve management of solar panels and increase the opportunity to reuse valuable materials
- The recommended next step is to analyse the potential impacts of voluntary and co-regulatory options.