Do Electronics Decompose?

By James Lee Phillips

Constant and rapid obsolescence of electronic devices has given us landfills full of "e-waste."
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Technology moves fast, and we're creating mountains of obsolete computers, cellphones, TVs and all manner of accessories. Everything breaks down eventually -- whether it happens over centuries in a landfill, or while it's still being used. Any given electronic device is made up of various materials, each with its own rate of decomposition. That in itself is a problem, as some items can become toxic or otherwise dangerous when the the more degradable parts have broken down (such as batteries). However, most of the materials used in electronics have a long "life" and will remain in virtually the same form for the foreseeable future.

Never Break Down

In the strictest sense, everything decomposes eventually. But when "eventually" means "after millions of years," such materials can be considered not to decompose in any meaningful sense of the word. This goes for the metal, plastic and glass used in our electronic devices. Glass alone has no measurable decomposition period -- the usual guess is that it will take a million years or more to decompose. By comparison, the typical estimate of 500 years for plastic seems brief. "Metal" covers far too broad of a category to summarize; obviously, the thin traces of metal on circuit boards will break down far faster than the solid blocks of power supplies and heatsinks.

Always Breaking Down

Yet the important aspect of decomposing electronics may not be how long the materials take to fully decay, but what impact they have on the environment while the devices are breaking down. Electronics regularly contain toxic substances such as mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic and beryllium, all of which can find its way into the soil, air and water once the more fragile exteriors begin to break down. Batteries are a perfect example; the thin metal exteriors degrade in a century or less, exposing the heavy metals within -- which are elements which never break down and are toxic.

While in Use

Batteries highlight the issue of decomposition and recycling because they (along with ink and toner cartridges) are components that can break down and be disposed of while their respective devices are still in use. Most PC users know that certain components are more likely to wear out than others, such as the electrical contacts on expansion cards and adapter cables and the moving parts in hard drives and fans. Processes such as the corrosion of circuit board traces and electromigration within IC chips occur in far less time than material decomposition. Therefore, the effect of degradation on faulty daily devices is far more immediately perceived than the growing problem of abandoned and obsolete electronics.