Skip to main content

Are solar panels recyclable?

One of the great debates when it comes to solar panels is what happens at the end of their life cycle. While many solar panels will last over 20 years, there are still considerations to be made for what happens to them when they are no longer viable. Building up renewable energy resources is absolutely necessary to combat climate change, but we also have to be wary of counteracting that good with excessive e-waste.

What are solar panels made of?

Solar panels line a hillside.
Moritz Kindler/nsplash

Let’s start at the beginning of a solar panel’s life. Solar panels are made primarily of glass, a metal frame, silicon cells, and wiring made of silver and copper. The silicon cells can be arrayed in monocrystalline or polycrystalline formats. Monocrystalline silicon is more efficient, as molecules are arranged in a single unified mesh. This results in an even, dark color. Polycrystalline silicon is cheaper since it’s amalgamating several crystals. These panels typically appear blue. The downside here is that polycrystalline solar panels are less efficient. Monocrystalline panels are 15% to 20% efficient, while polycrystalline panels are 13% to 16% efficient. This article digs into the chemical and component breakdown of solar panels.

How bad are solar panel materials for the environment?

If we’re on a quest to minimize e-waste, we need to know the environmental cost of leaving these materials in landfills, and the cost of producing them from virgin materials.

Silicon production is based on silica, which is derived from quartz sand. It’s typically heated with coal at a high temperature. Needless to say, using coal to combine carbon with silica is less than ideal. Silica mining isn’t great for the environment either. The vast majority of silica mining is happening in China, and most of it is for low-quality sand with a high carbon footprint. Even with improved silica mining, it’s a double-edged sword. Fracking used in oil and gas exploration requires silica sand. It’s safe to expect silica producers to sell equally to oil interests and solar panel manufacturers.

The latest methods of silicon production have reduced carbon footprints 12-fold, though these processes still have to propagate through the industry. From 2000 to 2019, the average carbon footprint of energy used in silicon production went up 43%.

At the tail end of a solar panel’s life cycle, research shows that cadmium, lead, indium, molybdenum, and tellurium are prone to leaching into the soil from discarded solar panels, but generally at low enough levels to by a minimal risk.

How long do solar panels last?

Most solar panels can last 20 years or so. Many manufacturers provide 25-year warranties, with expected efficiency losses between 5% and 10%.

Can solar panels be recycled?

Graphic showcasing monocrystalline panels versus polycrystalline panels.
American Solar Energy Society

Solar panels can absolutely be recycled and turned into new polycrystalline panels. Most metals are able to maintain purity when melted down and reconstituted. Silicon is a metalloid, which means it has some aspects of metals — and also a lower melting point than pure metals. This means it requires less energy overall to recycle solar panels.

Europe has mandated that manufacturers provide recycling options for their solar panels at the end of their life. Unfortunately, the U.S. hasn’t enjoyed similar life cycle support, making domestic recycling partners hard to find — 76% of producers currently do not recycle or reuse their panels.

How are solar panels recycled?

Methods for recycling solar panels are still being actively researched and tested. One project with Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems was actually able to increase the efficiency of a solar panel after going through their recycling process, though it still fell shy of the top-of-the-line solar panels available.

Recyclers first face the challenge of finding individual modules that are still usable. Then there’s extracting individual components, such as the silver weaving through the silicon cells. Then there’s extracting raw materials, like grinding up the glass cover or melting down the aluminum frame. Every process adds costs, and with the volatility of component prices and the race to the bottom for panel prices, it can be very tricky for recyclers to make it all worthwhile.

Where can I recycle solar panels?

Despite these barriers, there are a handful of partners in the U.S. who can provide solar panel recycling.

In the end, recycling solar panels is hard. Even with promising new technologies for making the most out of old panels, economic incentives need to be there for recyclers to implement those techniques at scale. If the market doesn’t provide those incentives, we’ll be relying on governments to legislate that manufacturers foot the bill. That’s a tall order.

Editors' Recommendations

Simon Sage
Simon has been publishing in tech since before the first iPhone was released. When he's not busy lighting a candle for the…
Alexa launches Grow a Tree Skill for Earth Day
A worker replanting a tree outside.

April is Earth Month, and in honor of the celebration, Amazon is teaming up with the environmental charity One Tree Planted. Through this partnership, Amazon will donate money to the charity to help with its reforestation campaign. The partnership will culminate in $1 million dollars donated, 1 million trees planted, and additional money from Alexa users for the rest of 2022.

If you’re not familiar with the One Tree Planted organization, it is a charity that has planted over 40 million trees since 2014. Since trees are essential in creating clean air and water, as well as a healthy environment, One Tree Planted wants to make it easy for anyone to help plant more. The organization has also been an AmazonSmile partner organization that allows Amazon customers to quickly donate to the charity when shopping on

Read more
How to responsibly recycle old and unused batteries
A pile of old iPhone batteries.

If you're planning on doing any kind of spring cleaning this year, odds are pretty good that you'll stumble upon a box full of old, dead batteries that you've been meaning to take care of responsibly. Maybe you haven't been quite sure where or how to drop them off, or maybe you just haven't had the time to get around to it. Either way, the process is pretty straightforward, and we're going to run you through it. 
Why do batteries die?
It's helpful to start by looking at how batteries work. When a battery is charged, it pulls electrons to one side of the battery. A barrier prevents those electrons from easily getting to the other side, despite the attraction. However, completing a circuit (i.e., connecting the battery to a device you want powered) provides a path through which those electrons can flow. That current is electricity. When the battery is charged again, it pulls those electrons through the barrier separating the two halves of the battery. 
This entire system hinges on having a stable medium that electrons can be stored in. Many of our devices use lithium as that medium on the positively charged anode side. Graphite (and sometimes graphene) is used on the negatively charged cathode end. These mediums start to degrade as electrons are pulled out of and pushed into each side every cycle. Even the separator can lose its efficiency. The end result is a gradually decreasing ability for these batteries to hold a charge as the mediums for holding electrons become more and more irregular. 
What leaks out of batteries?
If you've been hoarding your dead batteries for awhile, you might have seen some residue leaking from them. When the chemical components of a battery degrade, they create gas. This adds pressure inside a battery, making them sometimes look like a spicy pillow. Once the seal on the battery is broken, that pressure can sometimes force some the battery's liquid electrolyte to escape. It doesn't take long for that electrolyte to react with the air and turn into a salt. That salt is chemically stable, but like the liquid electrolyte, is an irritant. If you see that powdery residue, make sure to use gloves while handling it.  
Are dead batteries dangerous?
Yes, dead batteries can be dangerous. A battery's whole job is to store potential energy. If their means of containment is compromised, they can release all that chemical energy at once in a totally uncontrolled way, better known as an explosion. Even before getting to that point, the chemicals inside of a battery are rather caustic, potentially damaging whatever's around them when they leak. In order to minimize danger, you'll want to dispose of your dead batteries sooner than later. When storing them, put tape over contacts of each battery to prevent an accidental circuit from forming. 

What kind of batteries are recyclable?
Most batteries can be recycled, but with varying levels of efficiency. Lithium-ion batteries are hard to recycle as their technology is evolving rapidly. As a result, the materials available to extract can vary, as can their value. On top of the engineering challenges this poses, it also makes it hard for recycling facilities to justify economically. Our recycling capabilities need to ramp up quickly to meet the rising tide of dying lithium-ion batteries despite these hurdles.
Other battery types have well-established track records for recycling, however. The big lead acid batteries you'll see in cars and solar storage are over 90% recyclable.  
How are batteries recycled?
Batteries are typically recycled in the same way most electronics are: They're shredded, sorted, treated in solvents, then smelted. This process, particularly the smelting part, can have its own significant environmental impact.   
How should I prepare my batteries for recycling?
To start, it's good to tape over the contacts of your batteries to prevent any accidental circuits. The next most important thing is sorting. Make sure your lithium ion batteries are separate from your alkaline and other types of batteries. Once that's done, you'll want to double-check with your drop-off point to see which of those types they accept. Making sure they're clearly labeled can ensure they'll be properly processed. 
How to responsibly recycle old and unused batteries in your state
Finding specific drop-off points varies by location. We're going to break down some of the best drop-off locations in several states across the U.S. The easiest way to find a battery recycling drop-off point is using a locator like Call2Recycle. They also offer a mail-in option, which can be handy if you're a long ways from a drop-off. 
How to responsibly recycle old and unused batteries in California
These are some of the top-rated battery recycling locations in California. 

Read more
How much money can you save with solar panels?
Two men installing a solar panel on a roof.

Solar panels can be a big investment if you need to renewably power your whole home. Of course, since you're generating your own power, you stand to cut down on your electrical bill. Figuring out whether one cancels out the other is a bit of a challenge, so we're going to run through the factors you need to consider when doing the math. The complicated part of all of this is that the specific numbers will vary depending on where you live, and what the prices are like at any given time.
Upfront cost
Calculating the cost of your solar panels will vary by installer, but you're looking at an average of $20,000 for a 10kW system. Be sure to get quotes from multiple local companies before taking the plunge. It's worth exploring the financing options available for solar panels if the upfront cost is too steep. If you need to take out a loan for your solar panel install, it's possible to find them at subsidized interest rates.

There are some installers that will even put the solar panels on your roof for free, provided you buy all of the power generated from them. Under this power-purchasing agreement you might just be swapping out one electrical utility provider for another, but at least you won't have to worry about maintenance since the panels are owned by the installer. Odds are you'll get better rates, too.

Read more