Recycling Photovoltaic (PV) modules


Reusing and recycling PV modules are crucial in making the solar industry more circular and sustainable. While some PV modules still have useful life left upon removal and could be refurbished and reused, in cases where modules are heavily damaged or worn out, recycling becomes the next option to consider. In this post, we will cover the basics of PV module recycling.

What is the composition of PV modules?

In general, crystalline silicon PV modules consist of 76% glass (panel surface), 10% polymer (encapsulant and backsheet foil), 8% aluminum (frame), 5% silicon (solar cells), 1% copper (interconnectors) and less than 0.1% silver (contact lines) and other metals (e.g., tin and lead)1.

Why should we recycle PV modules?

  • PV modules contain hazardous materials such as lead, cadmium and selenium that are unsafe for the environment and human health1.
  • PV modules contain valuable materials such as aluminum, silver, copper and polysilicon. An analysis by Rystad Energy estimates that recyclable materials from end-of-life PV modules will reach over $2.7 billion in 2030, approaching $80 billion by 20502.
  • We can divert PV modules from landfills. Landfills are filling up rapidly worldwide and the biggest PV waste generators, such as the United States and Japan, are no exception. For example, in the United States, Waste Business Journal reported in 2018 that “over the next five years, total landfill capacity in the U.S. is forecast to decrease by more than 15%. This means that by 2021 only 15 years of landfill capacity will remain3.” Japan’s landfills will be full in 22.4 years if waste continues to be produced at the present rate, according to a 2022 report by the Ministry of the Environment of Japan4.
  • PV modules recycling will create more green jobs. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the International Energy Agency Photovoltaic Power Systems (IEA-PVPS) note in their 2016 report that end-of-life PV module management can foster industry growth and create job opportunities both in public (governments, public research, etc.) and private (producers, waste management companies, etc.) sectors1.

What are the steps for recycling PV modules?

A typical recycling process of crystalline silicon PV modules involves all or some of the following steps:

1) Removal of the junction box, frame and wires

2) Separation of materials such as the glass and the silicon wafer (thermal, mechanical or chemical processes)

3) Separation and purification of the silicon cells and specialty metals such as silver, tin, lead and copper (chemical and electrical techniques)5 6

What are some challenges of recycling PV modules?

  • High recycling cost: Although the exact cost varies depending on factors such as location and recycling methods, PV module recycling remains expensive. For example, in the United States, some recyclers charge around US$25-30/module7, while landfilling costs in North America (U.S. and Canada) are estimated to be US$1-2/module8.
  • Cost-effective delamination: PV modules are designed to be durable to withstand extreme weather conditions and long-lasting, with a typical lifetime of 25-30 years. This durability makes it challenging to disassemble PV modules cost-effectively.
  • Recovery of high-value materials: Recovery of high-value materials such as silver and solar-grade silicon has been a challenge. However, companies like ROSITG Companies and SolarCycle are working on new technologies to make high-value recycling feasible.
  • Collection and transport: In many cases, the collection of waste PV modules requires long-distance transportation, thus driving up logistics costs. A well-established network of collection points, like the one in the European Union, is needed.

Solar PV recycling is still in its early stages. However, the issue of the end-of-life management of PV modules is gaining more attention both from public and private sectors. If you want to learn more about regulations on solar panel recycling, check out our posts.


  1. IRENA and IEA-PVPS, “End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels,” 2016. ↩︎
  2. Rystad Energy, “Reduce, reuse: Solar PV recycling market to be worth $2.7 billion by 2030.” (accessed Jan. 24, 2023). ↩︎
  3. J. Thompson, “Time is Running Out: The U.S. Landfill Capacity Crisis.” Accessed: Jan. 25, 2023. [Online]. Available: ↩︎
  4. Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan, “一般廃棄物の排出及び処理状況等(令和2年度)について.” (accessed Jan. 29, 2023). ↩︎
  5. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Solar Panel Recycling.” (accessed Jan. 25, 2023). ↩︎
  6. AE Solar, “SOLAR PANEL RECYCLING.” (accessed Jan. 25, 2023). ↩︎
  7. C. Libby and S. Shaw, “Solar PV Module End of Life: Options and Knowledge Gaps for Utility-Scale Plants,” 2018. ↩︎
  8. K. Wambach, K. Baumann, M. Seitz, B. Mertvoy, and B. Reinelt, “Photovoltaic (PV) Recycling, Reusing, and Decommissioning — Current Landscape and Opportunities for Standardization,” 2020. ↩︎