Just as one truck leaves, another rolls in.
Almost every day, Anthony Vippond’s solar recycling plant in Melbourne’s north receives dozens of used solar panels.
In the car park, multiple tilting towers of the devices, held together by tie-downs, take up the spaces.
Right now, a lot of them come from schools as the state government upgrades or replaces about 500 solar panel systems.
Others come from businesses, homes or solar farms from rural Victoria.
Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of solar panel waste is expected in Australia by 2030, according to the federal government.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)
Some have large holes shot through the middle, others are smashed, but most have no damage at all and have been cast aside because they are not as efficient as they once were.
All those used panels have to go somewhere, and it cannot be landfill; Victoria, South Australia and the ACT have banned solar panels ending up in landfill — they have to be taken to e-waste drop off points to be recycled.
It was a move made to stop heavy metals in the panels from leaching into the earth, and — with roughly 26,000 tonnes of solar panels predicted to be thrown away every year in Victoria from 2035 — to force industry to innovate.
Solar panels aren’t made to be taken apart
John Polhill from Sustainability Victoria says it is a “unique experience” to be able to foresee a waste stream before it arrives.
But recycling solar panels is not straightforward.
“They are laminate, they’re stuck together, they’re glued,” Mr Polhill says.
To be reused, solar panels need to be broken down so each component — including glass, aluminium, copper, plastic and silicon — can be separated. And that takes a lot of heavy machinery to achieve.
Plastic covering the wires from used solar panels is being stored at Mr Vippond’s solar recycling plant in Melbourne’s north.(ABC News: Rachel Clayton)
Some of those materials can then be sold and used in new products.
Various companies in Victoria and South Australia are trialling different methods of breaking down solar panels from using chemicals and heat, to dry processes and computerised mechanical systems.
They each say their process is better than the one next door. But all have admitted one thing: the margins are not great.
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