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E-waste Facts: How Long Does It Take For Electronic Waste To Break Down?

E-waste Facts: How Long Does It Take For Electronic Waste To Break Down?

The short answer is: Forever.

That’s the sad fact of the matter. And that’s why we, at Buyequip, are so passionate about working together with businesses, households and community organisations to keep e-waste out of landfill.

But there is a longer answer, so let’s delve into the detail a bit further.

The key consideration to understanding more about e-waste is knowing the difference between something ‘breaking down’ and ‘decomposing’.

Only organic materials can decompose. Decomposition is a biological process – the splitting of organic material into constituent parts. The parts essentially “become one” with the natural environment once again.

Unfortunately, when it comes to materials that make up IT equipment, they break down rather than decompose. But what does this mean exactly?

It means that, over time, the material just splits apart into smaller and smaller pieces. None of the components are “living things”, so they never actually become one with the dirt.

So the key is making sure e-waste doesn’t end up in the natural environment, including landfill, in the first place.

That’s why our teams spend so much time carefully dismantling end of life IT equipment, recovering as much as we can for resale and recycling the rest for reuse.

How Long Does It Take For Electronic Waste To Break Down?

Glass: 1-2 million years
Hard plastics: 1 million years
Aluminium: 200-500 years
Tin: 50 years
Copper: It doesn’t break down
Gold: It doesn’t break down
Palladium: It doesn’t break down
Silver: It doesn’t break down
Iron: It doesn’t break down
Zinc: It doesn’t break down
Iridium: It doesn’t break down
Platinum: It doesn’t break down

Given 1 million years is as good as forever, actual forever is a whole new level of mindblowing concern.

Stephanie Bedo from reports that e-waste is currently the fastest growing waste stream in Australia and it’s growing three times faster than municipal waste.

“Globally we’ll produce more than 50 million tones of e-waste this year alone, 700,000 tonnes of which is generated in Australia.”

So – aside from the fact that it can’t be broken down – why should we care?

For one, what ewaste does while it’s there is a major concern.

As Gold Coast City Council points out, products that end up as ewaste are made of complex man-made materials and contain hazardous materials including lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, arsenic and brominated flame retardants.

“If ewaste is disposed of in landfill, these hazardous and toxic substances can leach from the waste and create pollution.”

The World Health Organisation further notes that this pollution affects human health, with children particularly vulnerable, since it’s become a source of income in developing countries.

Secondly, technology takes huge amounts of resources to produce. For example, it takes 1.5 tons of water, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 539 pounds of fossil fuel to produce just one computer. If we want to avert climate change, reusing technology rather than discarding it is key to reducing our fuel consumption and C02 emissions.

Finally, many of these resources are precious metals. Many of them are rare and non-renewable. Why risk losing them forever when they can be recycled?

This is not a definitive list of reasons to recycle ewaste by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve got dozens of more reasons to share into the future.

But one thing I’d like to finish on is, what’s your primary reason for recycling your e-waste? I’d love to hear from you.

Brett is the Managing Director of Buyequip and was the founder of Buyequip almost 20 years ago. Brett is passionate about supporting corporations, community groups and households to sustainably manage electronic waste.

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