Australia faces solar waste crisis

13 September 2023
Research addresses the legal gap
Australia is world leading in its uptake of residential rooftop solar, installing new solar panels at ten times the global average rate. This means, on a per capita basis, the solar waste problem facing Australia is far greater than that experienced in any other country. New research from the Sydney Law School aims to re-orientate renewable energy laws.

Australia is now facing a solar waste crisis.

The International Renewable Energy Agency, the International Energy Agency and the Australian Government have all identified the issue of solar waste. In her June 2021 National Press Club address the (now previous) federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley described the problem

“The uptake of millions of solar panels across the country from rooftops to solar farms has been vital from an emissions perspective but the explosion of retailers and importers in the area, and the lack of an industry wide approach to collection and recycling means it also looms as a landfill nightmare.”

Over 3.3 million Australian homes now have solar panels, with the oldest of these now beginning to reach their end of life (approximately 25-30 years).

Due to Australia’s limited regulations, and domestic recycling capabilities, when solar panels break or reach their end of life they end up in landfill. Renewable energy laws such as the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Ac2000 have successfully accelerated the clean energy transition, however, due to their focus on deploying new renewable energy, these laws do not adopt a lifecycle approach.

To date there has been no Australian legal research on the subject and limited legal research conducted internationally. Associate Professor Penelope Crossley from the Sydney Law School addresses this research gap through her Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA).

“This market failure demands regulatory intervention to fundamentally reorient our regulatory framework governing renewable energy technologies,” said Associate Professor Crossley.

“Australia’s lack of a credible solution coupled with the significant scale, costs and benefits involved, means it provides a perfect test case for my new theoretical approach: circular clean energy regulation.”

Associate Professor Crossley’s project aims to design an analytical framework to improve both regulations and the recovery of solar waste.

This reorientation is urgently needed because up to 90 percent of our photovoltaic solar panels (commonly called a solar cell, a nonmechanical device that converts sunlight directly into electricity) go to landfill as toxic hazardous waste at their end of life.

Solar waste poses not only a serious risk to the environment, but also to human health; it contains cadmium and lead which are known to cause cancer, neurological and cardiovascular problems.

"National solar recycling has been listed as a key environmental priority for the Australian Government for the past seven years. However, there is still no national legal framework to address the end of life of solar panels."
Associate Professor Penelope Crossley, Sydney Law School

“Victoria is the only state to have banned solar waste from landfill, leading to reports of stockpiling by energy companies looking to avoid recycling.

Circular clean energy regulation will be mindful of the complex regulatory environment in the energy sector and the challenging aspects of our geography, including the vast distances within Australia and access to recycling centres.”

The current cost of recycling each solar panel in Australia is $28,  roughly six times the cost of sending it to landfill ($4.50) .

This reflects the technical difficulties and high manual labour costs of stripping a typical solar panel with sufficient precision so its elements can be reused.

It also reflects the low values of the materials recovered from recycling; solar panels contain tiny amounts of valuable minerals, often in a film-like coating which makes them hard to extract.

This problem is not unique to Australia, with other major ‘solar powers’, including China, Japan, Korea and the United States, also currently struggling to achieve a commercially viable solution.

In contrast, the European Union legally mandated solar recycling in 2012, on environmental, health, and security of rare metal supply grounds. Amendments not only imposed a legal obligation to recycle, but also guaranteed sufficient scale to make recycling commercially viable.

However, the Australian context presents added difficulties, including long distances involved in shipping panels overseas for recycling; high costs associated with transportation from rural and remote communities; and the relatively high turnover of foreign solar manufacturers and importers due to the lack of a domestic solar manufacturing industry. 

When coupled with the lack of a legal obligation to recycle, these factors also explain why repeated efforts to encourage a voluntary product stewardship model in Australia have failed to gain traction. 

Solar waste contains critical minerals essential to the manufacture of advanced technologies which have been identified by the Australian Government as creating future security of supply issues, yet this has not received sufficient attention from the legal community.

“Our approach needs to shift from merely focusing on the uptake of renewable technologies to a more holistic lifecycle approach that encompasses the potential for recycling and critical mineral recovery at end of life, and principles of energy regulations,” said Associate Professor Crossley.

Sally Quinn

Media and PR Adviser (Sydney Law School)

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