Panel makers are grappling with a hazardous waste problem

Solar’s Dirty Secret

By —— Bio and Archives--December 17, 2017

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Solar's Dirty Secret
Solar energy is touted as clean, however, The Associated Press has reported that many panel makers are grappling with a hazardous waste problem. Fueled partly by billions in government incentives, the industry is creating millions of solar panels each year and, in the process, millions of pounds of toxic sludge and contaminated water. To dispose of this material, the companies must transport it by truck or rail far from their own plants to waste facilities hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of miles away. The fossil fuels used to transport that waste, experts say, is not typically considered in calculating solar’s carbon footprint, giving scientists and consumers who use the measurement to gauge a product’s impact on global warming the impression that solar is cleaner than it is. 1

A study by Environmental Progress (EP) warns that toxic waste from used solar panels now poses a global environmental threat. Last November, Japan’s Environment Ministry issued a stark warning: the amount of solar panel waste Japan produces every year will rise from 10,000 to 800,000 tons by 2040, and the nation has no plan for safely disposing of it. Neither does California, a world leader in deploying solar panels. Only Europe requires a solar panel maker to collect and dispose of solar waste at the end of their lives. 2

All of which raises the question: just how big of a problem is solar waste? EP investigated the problem to see how it compared to the much more high-profile issue of nuclear waste. 2 They found:

  • Solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear plants.
  • While nuclear waste is contained in heavy drums and regularly monitored, solar waste outside of Europe today ends up in the larger global stream of electronic waste. This will also be a problem in the US, which has more than 1.4 million solar energy installations now is use, including many already near the end of their 25-year lifespan. Federal and state governments have been slow to enact disposal and recycling policies, undoubtedly fearful of raising any red flags about the environmental threat posed by a purported climate change panacea. EP estimates that Americans with solar roofs produce 30 to 60 percent more electronic waste than non-solar households.
  • In countries like China, India and Ghana, communities living near e-waste dumps often burn the waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off the plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth-defect causing) when inhaled. 2

This is not to even mention the environmental damage done by making solar panels in the first place. A 2013 investigation found that from 2007 to 2011, the manufacture of solar panels in California produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water. Roughly 97 percent of it was taken to hazardous waste facilities throughout the state, but more than 1.4 million pounds were transported to nine other states. That’s no way for a state to keep its carbon footprint small. Six years later, it’s safe to assume the amount of toxic waste is even higher as solar panel production continues to ramp up. 3

Julie Kelly sums this up well:, “These are some of the dirty little secrets behind the push for renewable energy. While consumers might view solar panels as harmless little windows made of glass and plastic, the reality is that they are intricately constructed from a variety of materials, making it difficult to disassemble and recycle them.” 3


  1. “Bankrupt solar panels firm took stimulus money, left a toxic mess, says report,”
  2. foxnews
  3. .com, October 31, 2013
  4. Jemin Desai and Mark Nelson, “Are we headed for a solar waste crisis?”, environmentalprogress.org, June 21, 2017
  5. Julie Kelly, “A clean energy’s dirty little secret,” nationalreview.com, June 28, 2017

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Jack Dini -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Jack Dini is author of Challenging Environmental Mythology.  He has also written for American Council on Science and Health, Environment & Climate News, and Hawaii Reporter.

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