At the moment, there are no laws regulating the solar industry’s waste, but experts have predicted there could be a whopping 1,500 kilotons of it by 2050.
The Federal Government is now looking into whether they should set rules about how the industry deals with its waste.
Darwin solar panel installer Jeremy Hunt has fixed tens of thousands of solar panels onto rooftops around the Northern Territory.
When the panels fail early, manufacturers usually take them back. But Mr Hunt said that was not always the case.
“They’re … looking at the lowest possible cost to bring products into Australia and not owning up that their panels may fail early,” he said.
When that happens, Mr Hunt said he had no choice but to take the failed panel to the local tip, something he said he had done about 100 times.
“We have tried to minimise the waste we take there,” he said.
“The aluminium frames go into a skip bin and the metal can be recycled. So that just leaves the glass and the back sheet with the cells to go to landfill.”
He has also turned a few old solar panels into something useful, like workshop tables.
It is hard to determine how many solar panels have been going into landfill every year in Australia because no data has been collected.
Professor Rodney Stewart from Griffith University has been trying to get a handle on the problem.
“It’s not a big waste stream at the moment. It’s a relatively small waste stream because most of the solar panels installed have only been installed in the past decade,” he said.
“We have estimates that by 2050 we’ll have 1,500 kilotons of solar PV waste being disposed of.”
He said that is a problem because some of the elements in solar panel modules can be toxic.
“Some of those, if they’re in landfill, could leach into groundwater and get into water systems,” he said.
“And these are sometimes rare earth materials or types of materials we want to re-use because the extraction of those minerals in mining is energy-intensive.”
Three years after opening, the facility recycles more than 50,000 solar panels a year.
It charges manufacturers and installers to do this and at the moment it doesn’t accept the most toxic types of panels.
The company has just dramatically lowered its prices for installers to encourage more small businesses like Mr Hunt’s to recycle
Nasdaq-listed manufacturer SunPower is one of the biggest suppliers of solar panels in Australia.
Its local manager, Andrew Gilhooly, says that, if one of its panels fails while under warranty, the company will wear all the costs of recycling it at Reclaim PV.
“We do it because frankly we think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
But it will be a different story for the millions of panels the company has supplied to the market when the unit’s 25-year warranties start to expire.
Then, some of the recycling bill could fall to the consumer.
“Any costs incurred in truck rolling or getting it off the roof and shipping and so forth is to be covered by a third party,” Mr Gilhooly said.
A few states across Australia have already banned e-waste including solar panels from going into landfill, however these bans do not regulate how the solar industry should manage its waste.
Now, the Federal Government is looking into whether there should be set rules about how the industry deals with its waste.
It is looking to add solar panels to the Product Stewardship Act, which already mandates how electronic waste like televisions are dealt with.
Professor Stewart said hard laws will be difficult to enforce and a voluntary code would be potentially toothless.
“We need the industry to actually create some authorities to self-regulate and push their members to improve their rates of refurbishment or enabling recycling of components,” he said.
“And then those free-riders that aren’t doing that, that want to just import cheap products that can’t be re-furbished or recycled, then they can’t play in the space in Australia.”