Why are experts asking Aussies to stop replacing their solar panels?

By Jarrod
4 Min Read

Over 80 million decommissioned solar panels will fill Aussie landfills as the nation struggles to dispose of sustainable tech in an environmentally friendly way. 

As more Aussies attempt to ‘go green’ by installing solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in huge numbers, the industry is now grappling with over 100,000 tonnes of toxic dismantled panels by the end of 2035.

In her June 2021 National Press Club address, the (now previous) federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley described ‘solar waste’ as a serious issue for Australia’s environment. 

“The uptake of millions of solar panels across the country from rooftops to solar farms has been vital from an emissions perspective but the explosion of retailers and importers in the area, and the lack of an industry-wide approach to collection and recycling means it also looms as a landfill nightmare,” said Minister Ley.

Two years later, over 3.3 million Australian homes now have solar panels on their roofs. 90 per cent of these will find their way into landfills as toxic, hazardous waste at the end of their life. 

In a nationwide solar waste study earlier this year by the University of South Australia, researcher Professor Peter Majewski said incentives are needed for producers to design solar panels that can be more easily recycled.

“Australia has one of the highest uptakes of solar panels in the world, which is outstanding, but little thought has been given to the significant volume of panels ending up in landfill 20 years down the track when they need to be replaced,” Prof Majewski said. 

“About three billion solar panels are installed worldwide, containing about 1.8 million tons of high-grade silicon, the current value of which is USD 7.2 billion. Considering this, recycling of solar PV panels has the potential to be commercially viable.”

To date, there has yet to be any Australian legal research on the subject and limited legal research has been conducted internationally. 

The clock is ticking

Time is running out to find an answer as the nation’s oldest solar panels begin to reach their end of life (approximately 25-30 years).

Solar waste, which contains dangerous materials like cadmium and lead that are known to cause cancer, poses a serious risk to both the environment and human health. 

This problem is not unique to Australia, with other major ‘solar powers’, including China, Japan, Korea and the United States, also struggling to find a commercially viable solution.

But thanks to long production travel times, a rotating door of foreign manufacturers and costly transportation times, recycling the panels in Australia has become a uniquely costly and cumbersome process.

The current cost of recycling each solar panel in Australia is $28, roughly six times the cost of sending it to landfill ($4.50).

Associate Professor Penelope Crossley from the Sydney Law School said that despite being a grave concern over the last seven years, the government still had no national legal framework in place for the panels’ disposal.

“Victoria is the only state to have banned solar waste from landfills, leading to reports of stockpiling by energy companies looking to avoid recycling,” said Professor Crossley. 

“Our approach needs to shift from merely focusing on the uptake of renewable technologies to a more holistic lifecycle approach that encompasses the potential for recycling and critical mineral recovery at the end of life and principles of energy regulations.”

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By Jarrod
Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. He has a strong passion for new and emerging consumer technology within the building sector. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.