Solar panels have a lifespan of approximately 25 years and photovoltaic (PV) systems deliver a positive return for decades after their cost is recovered, but by 2035, Australia’s waste stream will contain over 100,000 tonnes of solar panels.

Australia has the highest proportion of household PV systems in the world, with more than 21 percent of homes now possessing a solar energy system.

There is currently no clear waste management plan for solar panels within Australia, and with the materials being classed as e-waste, it means that panels cannot be simply thrown into landfill sites.

There is roughly only $5 worth of recyclable materials found in a single solar panel, and experts believe there must be a plan in place before many of the solar panels that sit atop the roofs of Australian suburbia are replaced or thrown out.

Researchers at the University of South Australia are leading a national push to ensure the dream of renewable energy doesn’t become a nightmare of waste management.

Professor Peter Majewski is leading research at UniSA’s Future Industries Institute (FII) to help establish a lifetime stewardship scheme for Australia’s PV industry, ensuring strategies are in place long before solar waste peaks.

Prof Majewski’s team at FII are currently working on developing both policy and technological solutions to PV’s end of life problem, and he believes the integration of both dimensions will be key to a successful stewardship scheme.

“We have time to plan for this and ensure the processes are in place, but we have to start acting now, as the right practices may take some time to implement,” Majewski says.

“There are good stewardship programs in place for products such as paint and tyres in Australia, and we would like to see a similar system in place for solar, where the disposal process is pre-planned as an integral part of the product life cycle.”

Majewski says the low recycle value of the panels is a major hurdle for potential systems that could be put in place, and those systems must account for this issue.

“The high volume of panels will eventually offset this low value to an extent, but at the moment, we can’t expect market forces alone to drive recycling, and investment is needed to establish a waste management scheme and to improve the technology available for that process.”

Majewski and his team hope to have devised a plan to deal with the magnitude of solar panels that will enter Australia’s waste stream well before the projected highs.

Image: Monash University