Magnets are everywhere in our daily lives whether we realize it or not. But are magnets recyclable and biodegradable?
With the constant push towards eco-friendliness, it’s important to understand how different aspects of our lives contribute towards climate change and pollution. We use magnets everyday, but what effect do they have on the environment?
Magnets are not biodegradable. It can take up to a century for magnets to be broken down into smaller pieces, and they cannot be broken down by microorganisms either. However, magnets can be recycled and reused quite a number of times before they should be thrown away.
We don’t actually realize how much magnets are used in our daily lives. From sticky note replacements to credit cards, magnets are almost everywhere. While there is little we can do about most magnet uses, we should understand how and when to dispose of them to minimize pollution.
In our research, we looked into the different uses of magnets and what they are made of, since this determines their biodegradability. We also looked into the ways you can reuse and recycle magnets.
How Common Are Magnets?
When we think of magnets, we don’t truly realize how frequently they get used in our daily lives. After all, for average people, the most we use magnets is perhaps putting them up on the fridge, right?
Wrong. Magnets are almost everywhere now. There are plenty of things we use in our daily lives that have magnets inside them as important parts of their inner workings. From credit cards to computers and even microphones, speakers and other electric instruments – all of these use magnets.
Some magnets are huge, while others are so tiny they’re practically invisible.
Are Magnets Biodegradable?
The biodegradability of any material will depend on what the material itself is made of. If it’s made of compounds or substances that cannot be composted, then you can expect the end product to also not be compostable.
Sometimes, materials can be biodegradable but take a very long time to break down. Others will not biodegrade completely, and just disintegrate into smaller pieces that don’t actually get composted.
In that sense, magnets are actually not biodegradable. They take about a hundred years to even break down into smaller pieces, and microorganisms cannot break them down into compounds. If you throw a magnet into the trash, it’d just end up in a landfill, where it will stay for hundreds of years before it will become smaller pieces of magnet.
Are Magnets Eco-Friendly?
While most of us would assume that anything non-biodegradable is also automatically not eco-friendly, this is not necessarily true. For example, our hair and nails are pretty much non-biodegradable, but they aren’t necessarily bad for the environment by virtue of existing.
The eco-friendliness of any object depends on a number of things. The materials it is made of, the processes it goes through when it is made and what happens to it after it is disposed of. We’ve established that magnets are not biodegradable, so after disposal, the only option left is recycling and reusing. We’ll come to that later.
Materials that are made of non-renewable natural resources will naturally not be eco-friendly, and anything that involves pollution during the manufacturing process will be the same. Many industries generate a lot of smoke, waste chemicals and toxins, and these can be really bad for the environment
When it comes to magnets, the first thing to consider is the substances they are made of. For a magnet to be a magnet, it needs to have the magnetic force. Magnetic force can only exist in metals, which have free electrons that can create that magnetic pull.
Most magnets are made of metals like cobalt, iron and nickel, and these metals have to be treated before the magnetic force is acquired. Curing, melting, pulverizing – all of these processes involve the use of a lot of heat, and release a lot of toxic vapor in the air. With all the fuel being burnt and the waste chemicals produced by the end, the process of making magnets is clearly not very eco-friendly.
On top of that, the materials used are not very renewable either, and we’ve discussed non-biodegradability. Therefore, magnets are not eco-friendly at all.
Can Magnets Be Recycled?
Fortunately, while magnets are not biodegradable, they are recyclable. Consumer and industrial-use magnets are permanent, in that they are magnetized forever and thus can be used practically forever too. Unfortunately, while they can be recycled and reused, this isn’t always done.
The vast majority of magnets are actually not recycled at all. Because most magnets that exist do so in a large number of items – your phones, your card readers, your computers – and are so small, separating them from the item itself is very costly and time consuming.
For most corporations, where making money is the priority, it’s less expensive to mine for more resources than to spend time on making existing ones reusable. This means that thousands of magnets end up in landfills because the devices they’re used in are thrown away entirely. These will then stay there for hundreds of years, due to their non-biodegradability.
The cycle itself is quite unsustainable. The constant mine, produce, discard approach has caused a lot of damage. Particularly because the resources needed to make magnets are non-renewable and will eventually run out.
Efforts are being made to find more sustainable options and solutions, but until then, we must consider our own contributions. While we do not operate at the same level as large-scale organizations, we also throw away our fair share of magnets without considering the environmental damage they may cause.
Are Magnets Flammable?
You might think, well if there’s no way to break magnets down, you could just burn them. After all, we’ve all seen trash heaps getting burnt to get rid of the pile up, and burning them will also speed up the biodegradation process.
Unfortunately, magnets are also not very flammable. Unlike most other materials, which will easily catch fire, magnets are made of metals. Metals tend to have very high melting points in their purest form, but when you mix more than one metal together and process them, the melting point goes up even higher.
Rather than melting, most magnets will simply get very hot because the flames used to burn them do not reach the required temperatures. If they do happen to melt, this will still not make them break down into their components. As they cool down, they will begin to ‘freeze’ again.
However, at higher temperatures, magnets will also lose their magnetism, making them entirely non-recyclable, on top of changing their shape.
What Can We Do?
One simple way to make our use of magnets more eco-friendly is to reuse them wherever possible. While most magnets around us are out of our reach – you can’t exactly pull it out of your cell phone or card readers – the ones that are can easily be reused.
For example, smaller magnets can be reused to hold together papers or bags. You can even use them as bookmarks.
Magnets are clearly neither biodegradable or eco-friendly, and while recycling them is possible, it’s not a very easy or viable option for individuals. However, there is a push towards using fewer magnets or trying to find solutions to reduce their environmental impact. In the meantime, as consumers, we can do our best to reuse them wherever possible to minimize our own contributions.
About THE AUTHOR
James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.Read More About James Parker