How long does a computer take to decompose?

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When a computer inevitably reaches the end of its useful life, to the extent that it cannot even be reconditioned for another purpose, it should never be disposed of in a landfill. Secure IT disposals should always incorporate rigorous recycling and safe disposal to avoid harming the environment. Hypothetically, though, what would happen to a computer in a landfill? How long would it take to decompose, and what damage might it do to the environment?

Starting with a computer’s casing materials, we can quickly see any decomposition is going to take a while – hence why secure IT disposal is so important. While a steel PC case might rust away in a mere 50 years or so, aluminium notebook cases, regarded as a sturdy yet lightweight alternative to plastic cases, can persist for hundreds of years. If that wasn’t bad enough, plastics can stick around for a million years or more, and any glass, such as in a computer monitor, can last even longer.

While these are relatively benign materials, letting them rot away in landfills is a waste of resources. When recycling them as part of a secureITdisposals programme, these materials can be reused in new products, reducing the need to mine and process new raw materials and the environmental impact of these activities. Some computer manufacturers are even designing their products with closed-loop recycling in mind, so they can easily be recycled and reused over and over in new equivalent products, rather than being downgraded for low-grade applications.

When you look beneath the surface, you start to see the more exotic chemicals that make secure IT disposals so important. For example, start with the silicon chips used in a computer’s CPU and other components, such as the motherboard and graphics card. The silicon itself is often doped with chemicals like arsenic, boron, phosphorous, or gallium to improve its conductivity. Copper strips are used to connect the transistors, while an element named hafnium has been used to improve the performance of some chips.

It’s hard to predict how long it would take a CPU to decompose, because it would largely depend on the chip’s packaging. It will likely take some years, though, at which point traces of the above materials may leek into the environment. This is something that can easily be avoided through responsible secure IT disposals.

Looking at other components, it’s also clear that any decomposition will take a while. A hard drive is typically enclosed in a sturdy steel package, but inside you will find the disc itself is often made of an alloy of aluminium and magnesium together with trace elements such as zinc, copper, and silicon. What’s more, the hard disk head is usually made of an alloy combining iron, boron, and neodymium, the most magnetic of all elements.

Without even looking at printed circuit boards and rudimentary components like resistors and capacitors, it’s clear why secure IT disposals are needed to avoid electronic waste ending up in landfills. The important issue is not how long it takes to decompose but rather the consequences for our environment when it does.

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