The stock of photovoltaic (PV) panels has been rising sharply in recent years and is currently estimated at some three million tonnes in the EU.
However, sustainable solutions for the recovery of PV waste are still not well developed, and if not disposed of correctly, this waste can cause both environmental and human health problems.
It is forecast, for example, that from 2015 onwards, 30.000 t/year will be disposed in Europe, and over the next 20 years this amount could reach 500.000 t/year, including:
- 390.000 t/year of glass;
- 55.000 t/year of aluminum;
- 35.000 t/year of plastics;
- 11.500 t/year of crystalline silicon cells.
Since 2012, PV has been included in the EU WEEE Directive, which requires manufacturers and importers to facilitate and finance the take-back and recycling of their discarded end-of-life products.
Current technologies recycle glass in low-value industries, such as glass fibre and insulation. They do not allow for recovery of metals, especially crystalline silicon, which is used in more than 90% of PV cells worldwide. Silicon production implies energy costs that are equivalent to three years of PV energy production, which represents a serious drawback in terms of its environmental performance from a life-cycle approach.