“Photovoltaics” dossier

Photovoltaic recycling

A win for everyone

Since 2013 Swissolar, the Swiss umbrella association for solar energy, SENS eRecycling has been working together in Switzerland to ensure the environmentally friendly disposal of old photovoltaics modules. The successful system is based on the concept of shared responsibility: when purchasing a photovoltaic system, homeowners are already making a contribution to their future disposal by paying the advance recycling contribution (ARC). In return, manufacturers and importers undertake to take back the old modules. SENS eRecycling relieves all ARC partners who are affiliated to the industry solution of this obligation and takes care of the disposal of photovoltaic modules free of charge as soon as they have reached the end of their service life. Everyone ultimately benefits: from manufacturers and importers to homeowners and the environment. This is reflected in the numbers: Almost 100 per cent of photovoltaic modules in Switzerland are taken back.

Would you like to become an ARC partner?

As a SENS ARC partner, you will be making a long-term commitment to the environment. You will also be able to take advantage of numerous benefits, including the free collection of photovoltaics systems on site. Find out more in the SENS blog.

The photovoltaics recycling system at a glance

While smaller quantities can be returned to the nearest SENS collection point, SENS eRecycling collects larger quantities of old photovoltaics modules directly from its partners’ construction sites and brings them to a specialised recycling company.

The SENS eRecycling take-back process for photovoltaic systems in Switzerland

How the take-back system is financed

The advance recycling contribution (ARC) for all sold solar modules (incl. sockets, cables and power inverters) flows into a fund managed by SENS eRecycling. It uses this money to finance the collection and transportation of old photovoltaics modules, including the inspections carried out by the specialised recycling companies.

A fund for the future

The amount of the advance recycling contribution (ARC) for photovoltaics systems is based on the weight of the installed system. The weight not only includes the photovoltaics modules, but also any other components such as sockets, cables or power inverters, the latter of which converts direct current from the photovoltaics modules into alternating current. The price currently stands at CHF 40 per tonne or CHF 0.04 per kilogram. In contrast, the taking back, transportation and recycling of the material currently costs SENS eRecycling around CHF 440 per tonne. The financing of the system therefore only works as the current volumes of installed photovoltaics systems continue to far outweigh the volume of old material and therefore allow the fund to continue to accumulate it from year to year.

Further information on the recycling system and its financing

The recycling of photovoltaics modules today

The amount of photovoltaics modules recycled in Switzerland is currently still too small to make it worthwhile for Swiss disposal companies to concentrate on this service. That is why the photovoltaics modules are recycled at a facility just over the Swiss border on behalf of KWB Plan Real GmbH, with whom SENS eRecycling cooperates in this area. The German company checks the modules for any hazardous substances before disassembling them into their components.

Photovoltaics modules are not special waste

Crystalline silicon modules account for the majority of the photovoltaics modules used in Switzerland. They are free of any hazardous substances and comprise 90% glass, a metal frame, a plastic film and silicon wafers. Glass and silicon wafers are produced from sand. 

77% of the raw materials is reusable

Generally speaking, the silicon wafers used for the photovoltaics modules are processed together with the glass to produce glass wool that is used as an insulating material during construction. The metals contained in the photovoltaics modules, including iron, aluminium and copper, are also almost fully extracted during the recycling process and prepared on a 1:1 basis for reuse in smelting plants.  The plastic film, which is responsible for keeping the photovoltaics modules together, is subsequently incinerated. The electricity produced during this process is fed into the energy grid or used to generate heat for cement production.

All facts on the recycling of photovoltaics modules

Positive energy balance

Even though the production of solar power – from the manufacturing of photovoltaics modules to their transportation and ultimate recycling – is not completely climate neutral, solar power is primarily impressive thanks to its positive energy balance: after just 15 months, a new system has produced as much energy as was needed for its production and operation to date.

Photovoltaic recycling in Switzerland (Video in German)

Information on the life cycle assessment of photovoltaics modules

Long service life and high output

In addition to boasting a positive energy balance, photovoltaics modules also have a very long service life. Furthermore, as their output declines by only 0.5 per cent each year, their output 20 years later still stands at around 90 per cent of the figure they produced on day one. Experts therefore expect that approximately half the photovoltaics modules that are decommissioned after about 25 to 30 years will still produce a sufficient output to be reused as second-hand modules. Using such modules would be particularly useful where solar energy is only used for a short period of time: for example, on temporary car parks, mountain huts or old buildings that will soon be torn down – or anywhere with insufficient funds for a new system.

A digital passport for second-hand use

In a joint project being undertaken together with the Bern University of Applied Sciences and other partners from the solar industry, SENS eRecycling and Swissolar are working to clarify how the service life of photovoltaics modules can be extended in order to further reduce future quantities of photovoltaics module waste and keep the raw materials in the cycle for longer. The core element of the project is formed by a digital passport that should serve to determine data on the manufacturing process, any repairs and the current output of a photovoltaics module prior to its initial dismantling. On the basis of this information, a decision should then be taken as to whether reusing the photovoltaics modules will be worthwhile. If so, the inspected modules are labelled and sold at a cheaper price on the second-hand market. On the other hand, damaged modules or modules that no longer produce a sufficient output are recycled as has been the case until now.

Meeting the requirements of a circular economy – the goal for the future

Even though up to three-quarters of the raw materials found in photovoltaics modules can currently be recycled, today’s photovoltaics systems do not (yet) meet the requirements placed on a modern circular economy. Many of the raw materials used, including the silicon, lose value during the recycling process (downcycling) and can no longer be used to produce new photovoltaics modules. While they are recycled to produce secondary materials like glass wool, new approaches with respect to the selection and further processing of the raw materials will be required in order to completely close the material cycles in future.