European Environment Agency sets roadmap to strengthen PV circularity

PVthin welcomes the European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing on “Emerging waste streams: Opportunities and challenges of the clean-energy transition from a circular economy perspective”. The briefing highlights several opportunities to strengthen the circular economy for solar photovoltaics (PV) and identifies important policy steps to achieve this.

Thin-film PV technologies contribute to the circular economy in a number of ways. They provide a secondary use for mining by-products that would otherwise be disposed of. Cadmium, gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, and tellurium are sourced as by-products from the production of aluminium, zinc, lead, copper and coal. Once they reach their end of life, thin-film PV modules can be recycled to recover over 90% of their glass and semiconductor metals. Semiconductor metals are then reused in new thin-film PV modules, in closed loop systems. Emerging thin-film PV technologies also support high-quality recycling standards that will contribute to the circular economy. 

In line with the EEA’s recommendations, PVthin strongly supports ongoing work by the European Commission to set Ecodesign requirements for PV modules, inverters and systems. Among other important points, the Ecodesign proposals address the circularity of PV equipment through rules on durability, degradation, repairability, and recyclability. Adoption of the Ecodesign proposals will be critical to establish a harmonised set of sustainability requirements for PV at the EU level, an action which was recognised as strategic in the updated 2021 Industrial Strategy.

Waste from solar PV will increase exponentially by 2030, as modules across existing installations reach their end of life. While the WEEE Directive already sets a regulatory framework to support PV recycling in the EU, more must be done to close regulatory gaps, create a level playing field, and promote high-quality recycling standards.

Closed loop recycling systems offer the most effective end-of-life solution for PV modules, particularly in utility scale installations. To support these systems, PVthin asks the EU to: 

• Promote harmonisation of WEEE eco-fees across Member States;

• Make existing high-quality recycling standards for PV mandatory (CENELEC – CLC/TS 50625-3-5);

• Set material-specific recycled content requirements for new PV equipment as well as end-of-waste criteria for secondary raw materials in PV technologies.

PVthin looks forward to continuing its engagement with EU policy-makers and other stakeholders, with the aim of further strengthening the EU circular economy for solar PV.