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How to dispose of consumer solar products: A complete guide to responsible recycling and disposal

Small solar-powered products are a great way to go green for your wallet and the planet. But once it reaches the end of its useful life, that doesn't mean the legacy of green needs to end. Here are some steps you can take to ensure your old solar products end up in the circular economy, not the landfill.

What are small consumer solar products?

Small consumer solar products are becoming increasingly popular. The ability to perform a plethora of functions with nothing but the power of the sun is incredibly convenient and saves money in the long run. Common solar powered consumer products include:

Most large residential or commercial solar panels have an average lifespan of about 30 years. Smaller consumer solar products likely fizzle out a little sooner. For small consumer solar accessories, the solar panel may outlive the component parts the panel is attached to. If you're considering tossing a consumer solar product, chances are an element has failed other than the solar panel itself. Unfortunately, it's often impossible to repair or replace individual parts on such units, and disposal is the only viable option.

How do I dispose of small consumer solar products?

There are many ways you can responsibly dispose of your consumer solar accessories. The best way to prevent wanton waste is to use the item as long as possible, and if it is no longer needed or wanted, give it away to a new home.

But if your solar accessory has reached the end of its life, think twice about tossing it in the trash. Solar panels can leach hazardous materials like cadmium and lead, and the component parts of solar accessories can also present environmental hazards. Plus, solar panels and related components contain valuable materials like aluminum, silicon, and trace precious metals that shouldn't be lost to a landfill. It's rather ironic to toss a “green” product instead of recycling it for other uses.

Unfortunately, solar panels can't be recycled like other electronics. When a solar product reaches its end of life, it's very difficult to recover the valuable materials inside. The panel itself may be chemically treated, burned, or ground to recover materials. Metal and glass have to be separated. These processes are expensive, present environmental problems, and often create impure products.

To further complicate recycling, small solar powered accessories often contain other components that need to be sorted, such as hazardous batteries and plastic or metal mounts and cases.

Recycling large solar panels is difficult enough, but responsibly recycling small solar accessories presents an even greater challenge. Thankfully, there are some things you can do to make sure your solar accessories don't end up in the landfill.

How do I recycle solar accessories?

Solar recycling is a tough sell in the U.S. Compared to Europe, the U.S. has relatively few qualified facilities specializing in solar panel recycling, and unlike regular household recyclables, getting your small solar panels to them can be a challenge. Only a handful of states regulate solar waste of any type. Still, the worst thing you can do is toss your solar accessory. 

The good news is many recycling facilities in the United States accept consumer solar waste. Like anything though, it comes at a price. But spending the money to responsibly recycle your accessories has several benefits:

  • You prevent hazardous waste from entering the environment
  • You save valuable materials for use in other products
  • You help support a necessary solar recycling industry
  • You vote with your dollars for a circular economy

As time goes on, recycling solar products must become readily available to all, and a little bit of inconvenience now will expedite the process.

In the meantime, several options exist to recycle solar accessories.

Some national recycling services, like We Recycle Solar, accept consumer solar waste. For residents of Washington State and Oregon, Green Century Recycling offers free residential recycling for solar products.

Many local recycling centers also accept electronic waste, including solar panels. Contact your local recycling center or municipal waste management organization for information on recycling solar products near you.

If you can't easily recycle your consumer solar products, here are some things you can do:

  1. Repurpose or reuse your old solar products.
  2. Separate the various materials as best and safely as you can. For example, on a solar light, you can separate the panel, battery, and light from the main body. The body (made of plastic or metal) and battery can be recycled at a local recycling center. As far as the solar panel itself, contact your local recycling center or hauler to see if they accept solar panels. If recycling a handful of small solar products is cost-prohibitive, consider a solar panel collection drive. Many recycling centers offer discounts on large volumes, cutting down on recycling costs and helping your community prevent unnecessary waste.
  3. If recycling your small solar panel isn't possible, tossing it may be the only option. However, by separating other hazardous components like batteries from your solar accessory, you've already done a lot to divert potentially dangerous materials into the circular economy and out of the environment.
  4. Many suppliers and dealers will recycle large solar panels free-of-charge, so check with your supplier for recycling options.

Conclusion to Recycling Solar Panels

Recycling solar panels is not exactly a piece of cake in the U.S. But solar panels are here to stay, and given their longevity, an industry is sure to rise up to take care of them when they expire. As always, it's best to use a solar panel as long as possible. Doing so not only gets you the most bang-for-your-buck, but also gives the recycling industry time to catch up, so when your solar panel does finally expire, there will be a recycler more than happy to take it off your hands. 

Solar Us Shop is committed to doing what we can to keep our products out of landfills. Would you be interested in a Solar Us Shop recycling or solar panel buy-back program? Comment below!

  • Niki says...

    Great article! Could you advice on how to recycle smaller devices with solar panels? We recently purchased a Skimdevil pool robot which is about to replace our old solar powered robot. But now we were trying to find out where to recycle the old robot with inbuilt solar panels. Any advice? The manufacturer of the new solar powered robot (www.skimdevil.com) has no information on recycling unfortunately.
    Thank you,
    niki

    On February 22, 2021

  • John Gonzalez says...

    I would be interested in a solar buy-back program. Can you give more details?

    On January 31, 2021

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