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E-Waste: Solar panels

GS Paper 3

 Syllabus: E-Waste


Source: BBC

 Context: Solar panels, hailed as a crucial tool in reducing carbon emissions, face the challenge of disposal and replacement as they only last up to 25 years.


What is Solar E-Waste?

Solar e-waste refers to the electronic waste generated by discarded solar panels. As solar panels have a limited lifespan of 20-25 years, their disposal raises concerns about managing the electronic waste they create.


What does Solar Panel consist of?

A PV module is essentially made up of glass, metal, silicon and polymer fractions. Glass and aluminium, together constituting around 80% of total weight, are non-hazardous.

But a few other materials used including polymers, metals, metallic compounds and alloys are classified as potentially hazardous.



  • PV module recycling is still not commercially viable
  • PV waste recycling is still at a nascent stage globally
  • India does not have a solar waste management policy, but it does have ambitious solar power installation targets. 
  • India’s PV (photovoltaic) waste volume is estimated to grow to 2,00,000 tonnes by 2030 and around 2 million tonnes by 2050.


Issues with Solar E-Waste Management:

Issue Example
Lack of comprehensive policy Many countries, including India, lack comprehensive policies and regulations specifically addressing the management of solar e-waste.
Increasing volume of solar waste India could generate over 34,600 tonnes of solar waste by 2030
Limited recycling infrastructure Insufficient recycling plants and infrastructure
High cost of recycling Recycling a solar panel costs between $20 and $30, while landfill disposal costs $1-2
Toxic materials in the solar waste Solar panels contain toxic metals and minerals that can harm the environment when not properly managed
Limited awareness and enforcement Lack of awareness among stakeholders and inadequate enforcement of recycling regulations
Landfill disposal Improper disposal of solar waste in landfills, posing environmental risks
Resource wastage Discarded solar panels contain valuable materials like silver, copper, and semiconductor-grade quartz.


Various technologies available to extract valuable materials from solar e-waste include:

  • Mechanical Shredding: Solar panels can be shredded into small pieces and subsequent separation techniques to recover metals like aluminium and copper.
  • Thermal Treatment: Thermal processes, such as pyrolysis and gasification, can be employed to break down solar panels at high temperatures, recovering valuable materials and generating energy-rich gases or liquids.
  • Chemical Leaching: Chemical solvents or acids can be used to dissolve and separate valuable metals, such as silver and copper, from the solar panel components.
  • Electrochemical Processes: Electrochemical methods can be utilized to selectively extract metals from solar panel components by applying electrical currents or potential differences.
  • Automated Robotic Systems: Advanced robotic systems equipped with sensors and artificial intelligence can be used to identify and separate different components of solar panels for efficient material recovery.


Recent Government Initiative:


Solar waste management by other countries

Country Approach
European Union Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Directive and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)
United Kingdom Industry-managed take-back and recycling scheme
United States State-level regulations and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations, but no federal law
Australia National Product Stewardship Investment Fund: $2 million grant to develop industry-led PV product stewardship scheme
Japan Voluntary guidelines to ensure proper recycling of solar PV modules have been issued by the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association (JPEA).
South Korea Dedicated legislation to address the PV waste problem


What India can do to promote solar waste management:

Mandating module manufacturers to use environmentally sustainable design and materials with end-of-life in mind E.g., Similar to the eco-design initiative of the EU
Specifying the liability and responsibility of each stakeholder for waste management and treatment
Laying down standards for PV waste collection, treatment, and disposal
Encouraging mutual recycling responsibility agreements between module suppliers, project developers, and power purchasers
Conducting surveys and assessments of existing recycling facilities to determine their technology capabilities and capacity, identifying areas for improvement
Investing in recycling infrastructure to reduce costs, improving coordination between the energy and waste sectors to handle renewable energy waste, establishing more recycling plants
Including provisions for environmentally sound disposal and recycling of the solar waste in power purchase agreements signed by SECI/DISCOMS/government with project developers
Ban on landfills: Implementing regulations or policies that prohibit the disposal of solar panel waste in landfills
Supporting research and development efforts to drive innovation in PV design, reducing waste generation, and advancing technology to mitigate the environmental impact of renewable energy waste


Insta Links 


Mains Links

Electronic waste, or e-waste, is becoming major a domestic and global issue. Discuss the steps that must be taken to ensure the safe disposal of e-waste in the country. (15M)


Prelims Links 

In India, ‘extend producer responsibility’ was introduced as an important feature in which of the following? ( UPSC 2019)


(a) The Bio-medical Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 1998
(b) The Recycled Plastic (Manufacturing and Usage) Rules, 1999
(c) The e-Waste (Management and Handling) Rules, 2011
(d) The Food Safety and Standard Regulations, 2011


Ans: C