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Addressing the high cost of solar waste

by Tia

As the solar energy sector continues to expand, the challenge of managing the costs associated with recycling end-of-life solar panels becomes increasingly pressing. Desco Electronic Recyclers is paving the way for a more economically viable and environmentally sustainable approach to solar waste management.

Through innovative recycling services and solutions, the company is addressing these financial hurdles and also tackling the significant expenses involved in the collection, transportation, and processing of solar panels.

Giulio Airaga, Desco director, says they offer a robust and thorough recycling process for solar panels, ensuring that valuable materials are recovered and repurposed while minimising environmental impact.

“The process begins with dismantling the solar panels to extract the aluminium frame, junction box, and wires, which are valuable components that can be reused or recycled. Next, the remaining photovoltaic (PV) material is shredded for size reduction and milled to separate the glass, a crucial step in preparing the materials for further processing,” he explains.

The separated glass and aluminium are then sent to downstream customers who utilise these materials in the production of new, sustainable products, promoting recycling and supporting the creation of a circular economy.

He says recycling solar panels poses significant challenges, particularly in terms of collection and processing costs. “Transporting solar panels to recycling facilities can be expensive due to their bulk and weight.”

For example, transporting 1,000 tons of solar panels requires 50 truckloads, each costing approximately R30 000, resulting in a total immediate cost of R1.5 million. This cost can increase further depending on the distance from the collection site to the recycling facility.

Moreover, the actual recycling process is costly and labour-intensive. Solar panels are large and bulky, requiring significant manual labour to feed them into the recycling machinery. This process involves multiple machines running continuously to handle the large volumes, further adding to the operational costs.

The energy-intensive nature of recycling solar panels is compounded by the lack of reliable power supply in South Africa, presenting an ironic challenge given the renewable nature of the source material.

The cost to recycle each solar panel is roughly R200 to R250, and with an average solar farm containing between 170 000 and 611 000 panels, the financial implications are substantial. Given that it is illegal to landfill solar panels, finding cost-effective and efficient recycling methods is essential.

To further enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of solar panel recycling, Desco advocates for greater involvement from government entities and producer responsibility organisations (PROs). By subsidising costs and supporting recyclers, these bodies can help ensure that solar panel recycling becomes more accessible and economically viable.

“Our dedication to sustainability is reflected in our comprehensive approach to solar panel recycling. We aim to maximise the residual value of materials through efficient processes while minimising environmental risks by preventing landfill disposal. Our efforts contribute to the creation of downstream products such as aluminium, glass, polyvinyl fluoride, silicon, and refining materials,” he concludes.

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