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Contextualizing PV end-of-life waste

There has been considerable concern in the popular press as well as among photovoltaic (PV) technologists regarding the PV module end-of-life (EOL) waste stream that is expected to emerge in the coming decades.

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This work updates PV waste stream models, demonstrates the impact of module durability, and contextualizes the PV waste stream in terms of size and toxicity. Assuming varying rates of average module durability improvement, as well as deployment targets of 24 or 75 TWp by 2050, we show that expected future PV EOL waste streams are easily manageable and can be greatly reduced by accelerating module durability. By comparing the PV EOL waste stream to multiple global production and waste streams, we demonstrate that the 2050 PV capacity targets represent a significant reduction in energy related waste and also that PV EOL waste is orders of magnitude smaller than municipal, coal ash, plastic, e-waste, and other waste streams. We compare the toxicity of waste streams of coal ash and PV EOL in terms of the mass of metals such as lead, cadmium, and arsenic, and demonstrate the significantly lower (or zero) metal content in PV EOL. We note studies of modern PV modules that have shown the modules to be non-hazardous wastes, and additionally have shown safe levels even in the worst-case scenario of disposal in unlined (un-sanitary) landfills. While recycling is the preferred EOL path by the PV community and is taking root across the industry, the PV EOL waste stream is not, and should not, be portrayed as, an alarming environmental crisis.