RIVM looked into ways being developed to reuse raw materials used in solar panels. The four ways described by RIVM in this report are more sustainable than how solar panels are currently recycled. This involves the glass, the silicon from solar cells and the plastic back sheet. Hazardous substances such as lead, antimony and PFAS are also a cause for concern. From 2030 onwards, an increasing number of solar panels will be replaced. RIVM therefore recommends encouraging the development towards sustainable design and recycling now. 

The Netherlands has set a target of a circular economy by 2050. To achieve that goal, it is important to take a sustainable approach to recycling solar panels, as the number of solar panels in the Netherlands is increasing. By 2030, many solar panels will already need to be replaced. 

More sustainable than what we do now

RIVM analysed four ways currently being developed for sustainable solar panel recycling, involving the glass, the silicon from solar cells and the plastic back sheet. Currently, the glass, along with the solar cells and back sheet, is ground up and put to low-grade use. All ways of processing are more sustainable and better for the environment than what we do now. 

Reusing raw materials consumes less energy

RIVM looked into which recycling options seem feasible in practice and how environmentally friendly they are. In all cases, energy consumption is lower than how solar panels are currently processed. This is due to various factors, for example the fact that it costs more energy to process new raw materials into solar panels than to work with recycled raw materials. The option whereby glass is recycled into new glass for solar panels is the most circular one. This allows the raw material silicon to also be recycled for use in new solar cells. This is still technologically complex, but feasible.

Recycling of hazardous substances is cause for concern

Solar panels contain the hazardous substances lead, antimony and PFAS. It is important to pay attention to this in recycling. Lead is found in soldering materials and antimony is used to enhance solar performance of the glass. PFAS are found in the back sheet of solar panels, which can be released when burned. The way in which solar panels are recycled determines if and how substances are released and whether humans and the environment are exposed to them.

Recommendations: Design for recycling 

RIVM advises the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management to encourage the technological developments that enable solar panel recycling. This will make sustainable solar panel recycling a feasible proposition in five years’ time.

RIVM also recommends encouraging the consideration of recycling at the design stage. Take, for example, the way the solar cells are glued to the glass and back sheet. It is furthermore important to use hazardous substances as little as possible. Panels without lead and PFAS are already available on the market.