Recycling photovoltaic panels: the example of Yuma

Elizabeth Smith

For many people, Yuma is only the city of the 1957 western film with Glenn Ford, “The Train to Yuma”, a story which was also revived with a remake in 2007. Yuma, however, is anything but a fantasy city: yes in fact, it is a city in Arizona, in the United States.

Well, today we’re talking about a company born right here, where the Sonoran desert meets “Baja” California: its name is “We Recycle Solar”, and it deals with the recycling of photovoltaic panels. An activity that is actually very rare for now, but which will become increasingly common in the coming years.

“We Recycle Solar” the recycling of photovoltaic panels in Yuma

There is really no doubt about the fact that there is a need to start many companies dedicated to the recycling of photovoltaic panels all over the world. Ute Collier, the director of the International Renewable Energy Agency, has estimated that by 2030 there will be around 4 million tons of waste of this type, potentially reaching over 200 million tons by 2050.

Yuma’s waste is the first large-scale photovoltaic panel recycling center in the United States and more generally in North America. The goal is to respond to the “tsunami” of solar waste that has already been produced and that will be generated in the coming months and years.

Also because these renewable energy technologies can only be said to be effectively sustainable during their use. Thus without a supply chain for their recycling, they in turn become harmful to the environment.

The disused photovoltaic panels arriving in Yuma are collected in various collection warehouses – 7 in total – scattered across the United States, with stacks of panels being moved by forklifts within the plant. But in reality the analysis of individual panels is done by hand, with workers having to lift and examine each panel individually.

Some are completely gone. While others have cracks caused perhaps by a storm, and so on. First the panels are sorted by condition, type and brand; from there the actual recycling begins.

How are solar panels actually recycled?

Panels that are only slightly damaged or in any case still functioning, as the CEO of We Recycle Solar explained to NBC, can be put back together and resold: there is in fact a fairly lively market for refurbished panels.

Those that have no hope of being reconditioned are placed on a conveyor belt to start actual recycling. Which actually consists in the separation of different materials, which is anything but easy. Because photovoltaic panels are built robustly, so they can withstand storms; and because the internal elements are often very small.

With special tools (including robotic arms) We Recycle Solar workers manage to separate glass, crystalline silicon, aluminium, copper, silver and other materials present. There is certainly a lot of work to recover small quantities of material.

However, as explained by the managers of We Recycle Solar themselves regarding copper, «it’s not many pounds per solar panel. But when we process 10,000 pounds of solar panels per hour, we end up with hundreds of pounds of copper collected per hour.”

Read also: Lego bucking the trend: goodbye to recycled plastic

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