Studies have shown that heavy metals from solar panels, namely lead and cadmium, can seep out of cells and enter groundwater, in addition to affecting plants. These metals also have a history of harmful effects on human health. Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking the entire panel. Common problematic impurities in glass include plastics, lead, cadmium and antimony.
An obvious solution would be to impose a new tariff on solar panels that would go to a federal fund for disposal and dismantling. Such a recycling and waste management fund could help nations address their other e-waste problems and, at the same time, support the development of a new high-tech industry for solar panel recycling. Veolia, which manages the world's only commercial-scale photovoltaic silicon recycling plant in France, crushes and grinds the panels and then uses an optical technique to recover low-purity silicon. Another company, Lotus Energy, based in Australia, has developed a method to recycle nearly 100 percent of old solar panels.
While this last figure represents a small fraction of the total electronic waste that humanity produces each year, standard methods of recycling electronic products are not sufficient for solar panels. Since old panels are likely to be more valuable as they are than as constituent parts, this could be a very promising initiative. They have developed a special technique to extract as much valuable materials as possible from photovoltaic solar panels. However, both he and Tao are concerned that several U.S.
recyclers will sell second-hand solar panels with low quality control overseas to developing countries. Until then, governments are likely to continue drafting laws requiring the need to completely recycle old panels, rather than throwing them in a landfill. Since little or no significant vegetation is allowed to grow around the panels (as this would obviously cast shadows on the panels), this can cause a significant increase in soil erosion and surface runoff. This could mean that old solar panels are later discarded anyway, except under less stringent environmental restrictions.
If the panels were manufactured in China and installed in China, the payback is relatively fast; however, if the panels are manufactured in China and then shipped to the United States. In the future, funds will be distributed to state and local governments to pay for the removal and recycling or long-term storage of solar panel waste. For example, panels removed from roofs or solar parks could possibly be reused to power electric bicycles. The best method would be to reuse and install older panels, since the environmental cost has already been spent on these units.