Environmentally friendly right to the end:
How the recycling of photovoltaic modules works

A photovoltaic system is a brilliant thing – no question about it. A positive life cycle assessment and low costs: there is virtually no way to generate electricity that is more climate-friendly and efficient. But what happens to PV modules when they eventually break and need to be disposed of? Are they still so environmentally friendly then?

Questions about questions

If you have ever considered buying a photovoltaic system, you have probably asked yourself these questions; and once you start considering how to dispose of solar systems, a lot more questions immediately come to mind. What kind of substances does a PV model actually consist of? Can individual components be reused? Does Switzerland have the expertise to recycle photovoltaic panels in an environmentally friendly way? And last but not least: What does the entire process cost me as a PV system owner?

So it’s high time we took a closer look at the entire recycling process of a PV module.

SENS eRecycling and Swissolar: a successful cooperation since 2013

In order to lay the foundation at an early stage for expanding photovoltaics in Switzerland in as environmentally friendly a manner as possible, Swissolar, the Swiss umbrella association for solar energy, joined the SENS eRecycling system back in 2013. It did so proactively and voluntarily. In contrast to the EU, for example, there was no legal obligation to recycle PV modules in Switzerland yet. In 2023, this will finally be rectified with the revised ORDEE.

Cross-border expertise

How exactly does the recycling of solar panels work in practice? When a PV system has reached the end of its service life after around 25 years, it is first disassembled by a specialist installer. The PV modules are then picked up on site, taken to the collection point and from there delivered to a photovoltaic recycling facility. Here, we work together with experienced specialists from nearby European countries.

Reusing recyclable materials

Contrary to certain electrical or electronic appliances such as a refrigerator, recycling PV modules is not primarily about safely disposing of hazardous substances that are harmful to the environment – after all, the majority of solar panels do not contain any hazardous substances. Valuable raw materials, on the other hand, are available in large quantities in solar panels and can be reused.

Crystalline silicon modules account for the majority of PV modules in Switzerland. These are made of 90 per cent glass. The other layers consist of silicon wafers (silicon dioxide is the basis of glass), composite foils, metal and sometimes a film on the back. Over 75 per cent of a PV module can now be recycled thanks to innovative and high-performance processing and sorting techniques, multi-stage recycling processes and strict quality controls.

The recycled glass and silicon wafers are used for producing building insulation material from glass wool. The composite film is incinerated to generate electricity for the energy grid or heat for cement production. The metals are extracted and delivered to smelters in Europe for reuse.

Secured financing

The SENS eRecycling system is financed through an advance recycling fee, ARF. It is already included in the purchase price of a PV module. The ARF of all solar panels sold goes into a fund managed by SENS. SENS finances the entire recycling process with the money from this fund. This means a specialised recycling company is responsible for collecting the PV modules to be disposed of, transporting them to the collection points and properly disposing of them.

So if you are considering buying a photovoltaic system, there is one thing you should know: once the solar panels have reached the end of their life cycle, no additional costs are incurred for recycling. This is due to the fact that you already paid the entire disposal costs when you purchased the system – provided you have purchased the photovoltaic system from a specialist installer who is a member of the SENS network.