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Glass granules resulting from the recycling process
© PV CYCLE
BINE interview on the PV recycling system
23.01.2012

Solar modules on course to be recycled

Following personnel changes in PV CYCLE, the industry association for recycling photovoltaic modules (BINE reported), Wilfried Taetow took over its leadership in September 2011. In the BINE interview, the new president explains how the recycling of PV modules can be realised at a time when the industry is under economic pressure and the EU is planning to include discarded PV modules within the scope of its EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive.

What does PV waste consist of and how should it be recycled in future?

“About 75 per cent of solar modules is made up of glass. Further main components principally include metals such as aluminium from the frame and copper from the connection cables, which makes up about 10 per cent. These three materials are recycled by our partner companies. In addition, there is also plastic that stems from the junction box and the laminate films. Although there are still no commercial-scale plants in operation for recycling silicon fragments from solar cells, the industry is working on further developments.”

Which module components are recycled and for which applications are the recycled materials used?

“At the moment glass, aluminium and copper are mostly recycled. There is already an established market for these secondary raw materials and there are sufficient takers available. However, this market still needs to develop for silicon fragments or active substances from thin-film modules.”

The formulated voluntary commitment (Environmental Agreement) was evidently not binding enough for the EU…?

“The voluntary commitment proposed by PV CYCLE at the end of 2010 was flawed in several aspects. The EU Commission made this clear in its statement at the beginning of 2011. After it became clear at the Annual General Assembly held in June 2011 that this Environmental Agreement would not enable us to reach our goal, the newly appointed board immediately established a working group that presented a considerably improved version in September for approval by the members. This new Environmental Agreement, which will provide our basis for further developments, was passed by a large majority at an Extraordinary General Assembly. Unfortunately the legislative process in Brussels was already too far advanced at this point in time and our new Environmental Agreement was not enough to persuade the policy makers to change their plan.”

What effect do the partner companies in PV CYCLE expect and how will the industry deal with this development?

“We assume that the new WEEE* Directive will be adopted in the near future. This WEEE Directive expressly includes PV modules within its scope of application. In the next stage, all 27 EU member states must transpose the WEEE Directive into their respective national legislation. That can last up to 18 months. All manufacturers and importers of PV modules will then be subject to the respective national laws. The WEEE Directive imposes numerous obligations on them. These range from national registration and the provision of an insolvency-proof financial guarantee to monthly sales reporting and the provision and disposal of collector containers. Because many companies have difficulties in complying with these tasks and obligations on an individual basis, many companies in the electrical industry have been making use of joint systems for many years. These include, for example, collection and guarantee systems. As part of the WEEE implementation, PV CYCLE will provide its members with precisely such systems: a special system for collecting and disposing of PV modules and a financial guarantee system that meets the requirements of the authorities.”
(*Editor’s note: WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment)

Can your association meet the requirements of the WEEE Directive with its own procedures?

“Yes, we are absolutely convinced that the work invested in developing our collection and recycling system in the last few years was not in vain. Much of that legally required by us in future is already in existence or is at least being developed. Unfortunately, the national diversity of the 27 EU member states and their respective legislations do not make it easy to fulfil the tasks with a uniform system. We will no doubt have to adjust to particular aspects specific to the individual countries.”

Does the incorporation of solar energy system operators in the WEEE system therefore mean that you can no longer expect a uniform take-back and recycling system from PV CYCLE and that old systems will have to be disposed of in accordance with the respective national requirements?

“In future, PV modules will be treated as electrical appliances, which changes the owners’ statutory obligations for disposing of PV modules. In the same way that you have to take old TVs to a suitable collection point and not simply throw them away with the household rubbish or construction waste, you will now have to do the same with PV modules in future. Whether you have to return it to PV CYCLE or local authority collection points will be precisely regulated in the national laws. PV CYCLE will in all events continue to expand its network of collection points for small recycling volumes across Europe and also continue to offer to fetch large volumes from sites being dismantled.”

Which companies and procedures are available to deal with the end-of-life modules? How large is the currently available processing capacity?

“PV CYCLE is currently working with 185 collection points and 6 recycling companies throughout Europe. In addition, one PV CYCLE member operates its own take-back system and recycling plant. Since the middle of 2010, we have collected 1,500 tonnes of end-of-life modules in our joint take-back system.
Three quarters of these have been recycled at so-called flat glass recyclers. Just one of these recyclers has an annual capacity of 1.4 million tonnes. That corresponds to almost exactly the same volume of PV modules that were brought to the European market in 2010. There are therefore no capacity problems with flat glass recycling. The situation looks somewhat different, however, with the special recycling procedures for thin-film modules: we are currently working in this regard with two smaller companies from Germany. Although their capacity is currently quite small, this is not a problem since the total volume of collected thin-film modules is also still small. However, we expect these modules to increase in volume and therefore assume that our partners will also accordingly increase their capacity.”

In your view, what sort of economic and financial consequences will this have on the PV companies and customers? Can you give us a cost projection?

“The return and recycling of solar modules shall continue to remain free of charge for module owners. Owners are merely responsible for dismantling and transporting them to the collection point. The disposal and associated administration costs represent, of course, additional costs for the manufacturers and importers, which need to be incorporated into the overall calculation. There are also further costs for the national registration, reporting and the financial guarantee.”

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