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Are We Headed for a Solar Waste Crisis?

Are We Headed for a Solar Waste Crisis? thumbnail

Last November, Japan’s Environment Ministry issued a stark warning: the amount of solar panel waste Japan produces every year will rise from 10,000 to 800,000 tons by 2040, and the nation has no plan for safely disposing of it.

Neither does California, a world leader in deploying solar panels. Only Europe requires solar panel makers to collect and dispose of solar waste at the end of their lives.

All of which begs the question: just how big of a problem is solar waste?

Environmental Progress investigated the problem to see how the problem compared to the much more high-profile issue of nuclear waste.

We found:

  • Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants.
  • If solar and nuclear produce the same amount of electricity over the next 25 years that nuclear produced in 2016, and the wastes are stacked on football fields, the nuclear waste would reach the height of the Leaning Tower of Pisa (52 meters), while the solar waste would reach the height of two Mt. Everests (16 km).
  • In countries like China, India, and Ghana, communities living near e-waste dumps often burn the waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off the plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled.
Waste Production per TWh.001.jpeg

The study defines as toxic waste the spent fuel assemblies from nuclear plants and the solar panels themselves, which contain similar heavy metals and toxins as other electronics, such as computers and smartphones.

To make these calculations, EP estimated the total number of operational solar panels in 2016 and assumed they would all be retired in 25 years — the average lifespan of a solar panel. EP then estimated the total amount of spent nuclear fuel assemblies that would be generated over a 25 year period. EP then divided both estimates by the quantity of electricity they produced to come up with the waste per unit of energy measure.

While nuclear waste is contained in heavy drums and regularly monitored, solar waste outside of Europe today ends up in the larger global stream of electronic waste.

Solar panels contain toxic metals like lead, which can damage the nervous system, as well as chromium and cadmium, known carcinogens. All three are known to leach out of existing e-waste dumps into drinking water supplies.

The deployment of solar has increased significantly in recent years in response to government subsidies and mandates. Global installed capacity more than doubled between 2012 and 2015.

In 2016, solar provided 1.3% of the world’s electricity, with 301 GW installed. Nuclear reactors provided 10% of the world’s electricity in the same year.

A recent report found that it would take 19 years for Toshiba Environmental Solutions to finish recycling all of the solar waste Japan produced by 2020. By 2034, the annual waste production will be 70 – 80 times larger than that of 2020.

Methodological notes:

  • “Solar” in this analysis exclusively refers to solar photovoltaic.
  • For the analysis, EP assumed that each solar panel would last 25 years
  • EP estimated that a typical 1 GW nuclear reactor produces 27 tonnes of waste annually.

By Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson

Energy Collective

11 Comments on "Are We Headed for a Solar Waste Crisis?"

  1. John Kintree on Sun, 2nd Jul 2017 2:49 pm 

    According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the study is incorrect, and that in fact solar panels are “mainly made up of easy-to-recycle materials that can be successfully recovered and reused at the end of their useful life.”

  2. Davy on Sun, 2nd Jul 2017 3:03 pm 

    Nothing is easy to recycle and reuse in a throw away world. The scale of the solar waste will be daunting eventually becuase of the issues of how many are needed to supply energy for our status quo world. We already have electronic waste issues. As long as we choose techno solutions we are going to have techno problems. Will we ever just consider less?

  3. John Kintree on Sun, 2nd Jul 2017 3:10 pm 

    More information about recycling solar panels here:

  4. Apneaman on Sun, 2nd Jul 2017 3:29 pm 

    Why worry about it when the fossil fuel waste crisis – 40 Billion tons of CO2 per year & ever more methane leakage (natural & industrial)- will eliminate all other human crises forever later this century?

  5. peakyeast on Sun, 2nd Jul 2017 3:33 pm 

    Almost 50% of materials in solar panels is steel? Concrete 20%? Neither is used in any significant amount in most installations i have seen.

    If the steel is for roof mounting etc. – its readily reusable.

    If its the copper – the wiring is normally easy to remove – even if soldered onto panel.

    It really doesnt seem like a reasonable study.

  6. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 2nd Jul 2017 5:20 pm 

    If the solar panel works, keep using it.
    For what reason is it busted at 25 years?

    If it’s made of glass, smash it and toss it into concrete production.

    If it’s made of plastic, toss it into a trash incinerator.

    Silicon wafers are just glass. Throw onto beach
    wait and turns back into sand.
    Problem solved.

  7. Anonymouse on Sun, 2nd Jul 2017 5:32 pm 

    Guess who paid for this ‘study’.

    Solar panels generate 300x more toxic waste than nuclear(who knew?). And, nuclear plants mostly consist of air as the graphic above attest. Take away, solar bad, nukes good.(Even recycling solar panels is far worse than nuclear waste). Figure it out people….

  8. twocats on Sun, 2nd Jul 2017 6:47 pm 

    i first saw this latest line of psy-ops from texas tea over on PObarrel. that was about all i needed to know.

    even if there was a shredicle (1 picometer of a shred) of truth here, there’s just one tiny itsy bitsy problem: containing the radiation from nuclear waste is WAY more difficult than containing wastes like cadmium. Cadmium is collected in modern incinerators. Radiation melts the most advanced robots created today. no comparison.

    that said, the CO2 and waste issues surrounding solar are huge and will definitely lower EROEI and ability to combat climate change.

  9. Kenz300 on Sun, 2nd Jul 2017 8:18 pm 

    Energy Collective

    A front group for the fossil fuels and nuclear industries.

  10. DerHundistlos on Mon, 3rd Jul 2017 12:20 am 

    The best solution to a confrontation with nature is to work with, rather than against, the problem.

  11. Kevin Cobley on Mon, 3rd Jul 2017 11:26 pm 

    All manufactured products must not be sold unless the manufacture offers a significant sum of money to repurchase the used product for recycling. Also financing the collection of used products.
    Consumers would have to pay more for manufactured products, to think more carefully about their longevity or needs for a manufactured product.
    Disposal of a used product is a cost that must be borne by the consumer, it’s clear that they can no longer be just dumped into the environment affecting the well being of others.

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