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End-of-Life Management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels

The world’s total annual electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) reached a record of 41.8 million metric tonnes in 2014. Annual global PV panel waste was 1,000 times less in the same year. Yet by 2050, the PV panel waste added annually could exceed 10% of the record global e-waste added in 2014. As the analysis contained in this report shows, the challenges and experiences with e-waste management can be turned into opportunities for PV panel waste management in the future. As the global PV market increases, so will the volume of decommissioned PV panels. At the end of 2016, cumulative global PV waste streams are expected to have reached 43,500-250,000 metric tonnes. This is 0.1%-0.6% of the cumulative mass of all installed panels (4 million metric tonnes). Meanwhile, PV waste streams are bound to only increase further. Given an average panel lifetime of 30 years, large amounts of annual waste are anticipated by the early 2030s. These are equivalent to 4% of installed PV panels in that year, with waste amounts by the 2050s (5.5-6 million tonnes) almost matching the mass contained in new installations (6.7 million tonnes). Growing PV panel waste presents a new environmental challenge, but also unprecedented opportunities to create value and pursue new economic avenues. These include recovery of raw material and the emergence of new solar PV end-of-life industries. Sectors like PV recycling will be essential in the world’s transition to a sustainable, economically viable and increasingly renewables-based energy future. To unlock the benefits of such industries, the institutional groundwork must be laid in time to meet the expected surge in panel waste.