Rooftop solar produces clean energy but most panels end up in landfill despite being recycable

Felix MacNeill installed solar panels on the roof of his house in Canberra in 2014 – he has never looked back.

“It effectively means we don’t have any utility bills – I think we’re even making a very small profit,” MacNeill said.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a roof, why not put a couple of solar panels on it?

“You reduce your emissions, you put clean energy into the system and you don’t waste any money on it.”

Felix MacNeill installed solar panels on his roof seven years ago. (

ABC News: Rosie King

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When he bought his panels, Mr. MacNeill gave little thought to what he would do with them when it was time to upgrade.

“Not a hell of a lot at the time. But if they last almost 30 years, they could outlive me,” he admitted.

Most solar panels end up in landfills

Australia has some of the highest rooftop solar usage in the world, with nearly 3 million households now using solar cell power.

The surge in solar energy started around 2010 and has grown rapidly and sharply.

The lifespan of a solar module can be anywhere from 10 to 25 years, which means that the number of modules that are nearing the end of their lifespan will increase exponentially.

Currently, almost all broken or expired solar modules end up in landfills and experts have been warning for some time that more than 100,000 tons of modules will end up there by 2035.

Clive Fleming operates one of the few solar panel recycling facilities in Australia, Reclaim PV in Adelaide.

“We operate across Australia and do our pick-up services, whether it’s a drop-off point or we can pick it up from any location across Australia,” said Mr. Fleming.

The service is available to manufacturers, installers, retailers, solar farm operators, and homeowners, and the cost of recycling a solar panel is approximately $ 10 plus shipping to South Australia.

A man in a safety vest rests his arm on a stack of old solar panels in a warehouse. Clive Fleming says solar panels are 100 percent recyclable. (

ABC News: Stephen Opie

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Demand is small but strong, coming mostly from manufacturers making warranty claims and retailers helping more and more households upgrade their decades-old systems.

“Homeowners come and pay to have their records recycled,” said Mr. Fleming.

“The biggest challenge is developing the network and making sure people know that they actually have a choice other than landfill.”

Mr Fleming said what would help boost business and keep solar panels out of landfills would be if more Australian jurisdictions followed Victoria’s example and banned their disposal.

Solar panels are 100 percent recyclable, but stripping and sorting the materials is an expensive proposition and the return on these materials is not enough to cover these costs.

“At the moment we have to charge for recycling because the amount of incoming solar panels is not huge,” he said.

“Until that tipping point is where we can sell our materials in bulk, that means we still have to bill the process and our labor.”

Ask manufacturers to take responsibility

University of New South Wales solar researcher Nathan Chang said that recycling solar panels makes sense from an environmental point of view, but is not yet cost effective for recyclers.

And he said he feared the cost of recycling solar panels would be a significant barrier for many Australian households.

According to Chang, it makes more sense for manufacturers to ensure that a solar module is collected and recycled at the end of its service life.

“This is the model that is used in Europe and I see great advantages in it,” he said.

“Because what happens then is that they charge a little more up front for the solar panel to cover the cost – so the customer pays for it in the end – but companies can organize themselves on a large scale how best to waste it and make sure it happens.

“It also opens up the possibility for companies to think about how to design modules so that they are really cheap and effectively recyclable.”

A man with glasses is standing in an office and smiling at the camera. Dr. Nathan Chang wants manufacturers to take responsibility for recycling solar panels. (

ABC News: Elena de Bruijne

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The only concern Mr. Chang had with this approach was the risk that the price spike would be so high that people would be discouraged from investing in solar panels.

“It is possible and I think it would be a shame because it would do the opposite of what we want,” he said.

“In the end, we want something good for the environment and profitability.”

Since 2019, the federal government has been checking whether there should be rules for the solar industry to deal with its waste.

The main consideration was whether solar panels should be included in the Product Stewardship Act, which already prescribes the handling of electronic waste such as televisions.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley has indicated that change is imminent.

“A product stewardship program for photovoltaic systems should promote shared responsibility throughout the supply chain,” a spokesman for Minister Ley told ABC.

“Designers, manufacturers, installers and retailers are all responsible for managing the impact of their products throughout their lifecycle.”

An announcement is expected in the coming weeks and will likely outline a similar scheme to the current one for televisions and computers, where responsibility falls on the supply chain rather than the user.

If Felix MacNeill’s solar panels were to wrap it up before this change, he’d be happy to pay to have them shipped to South Australia and recycled.

“I think it’s a great thing – it’s really not a lot of money,” he said.

“But what I’d really like to see is a market for decent second-hand panels because a lot of people get rid of them way too soon – but that’s another matter.”

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