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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.
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.
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.
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:
For more details on the national action plan, including the product stewardship scheme for photovoltaic systems, visit the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment website.