Bitcoins quiet e-waste problem causing a loud and clear impact on the planet.

What is Bitcoin?
Bitcoin is one of many new decentralised digital currencies founded back in 2009. Decentralised digital currencies are bank-free methods of transferring a certain amount of money to other people without the need for a third group/party (e.g. bank). The currency can be passed from one user online to another on the Bitcoin network or other platforms. Bitcoin has made a tremendous amount of money with all transactions ever made set to be worth around $653 billion (and rising). In the middle of 2021, Bitcoin made up around 1.7% of all the money in the world. For simplicity, Bitcoin is commonly known as a cryptocurrency.

What is e-waste?
Electronic waste (or e-waste for short) is the disposal of old, broken electronic products which are either sent to specialised recycling plants, refurbishment companies, salvage shops or simply thrown away into landfills. In 2019, the world produced 53.6 million tons of e-waste; equivalent to 7.3 kilograms of e-waste per person worldwide.

What’s the issue with e-waste?
The major issue with e-waste is the large usage of rare/heavy metals such as samarium, terbium, neodymium, etc within the products which can have profound impacts on the environment when disposed of. If a phone, for example, is thrown into a landfill, over time the electronic settles into the soil and slowly breaks down the rare metals, subsequently, seeping into the soil. When such occurs, the soil becomes contaminated and poisonous. As the metals spread, they reach waterways and other environments which can kill human, animal and plant life.

E-waste has also shown to contaminate local air quality; this happens when the e-waste heats up and the toxic chemicals are released into the air.
According to the WHO (World Health Organisation), e-waste is responsible for millions of health conditions and deaths of children and adults worldwide. If e-waste is properly disposed of in recycling centres, then the impact can be minor, however.

Can e-waste be recycled?
E-waste can be recycled but not in the conventional kerbside bin. Due to both the chemicals and rare metals, recycling e-waste is complicated and so there are only a few places where recycling e-waste is possible. E-waste recycling is also expensive, therefore, limiting how any businesses and countries can cater to those recycling needs. Currently, less than 20% of all global e-waste is correctly disposed of (recycled). Europe has the highest percentage of effective e-waste recycling at around 45%. However, with the many millions of tons produced, it’s still not enough.

How does Bitcoin generate e-waste?
According to economists, a single Bitcoin transaction is equivalent to throwing away 272 grams of e-waste or the same as throwing away around 2 iPhone 12 minis. But how?
Many people digitally mine Bitcoin to make money, though, this is where it starts to create environmental problems. When mining, people need specific hardware devices called “application-specific integrated circuits” or ASIC for short, which have short lives and ultimately generate a lot of tangible waste over time. According to economists, the average lifespan of these devices is around 1.29 years.

In 2020 alone, there were approximately 112.5 million Bitcoin transactions; equating to around 272 grams of e-waste per transaction. This number is steadily rising with approximately 400,000 transactions completed every day in 2021. In the context of a year, 146 million transactions for 2021.

Other Bitcoin environmental issues:
Whilst e-waste is a considerable problem with immense implications, Bitcoin also uses extensive amounts of energy to be mined. According to a scientific paper back in 2016, 17 megajoules of energy are required to mine Bitcoin worth just $1.38c AUD (1 USD). The total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced in only a small amount of time were calculated to be 3 – 15 million tons. The number of emissions produced from mining a single Bitcoin is also based on location. For instance, China’s emissions from mining are projected to be around 4 times greater than countries like Canada.

Is there a way to reduce the amount of Bitcoin hardware thrown away?
Unfortunately, reducing the sheer volume of e-waste caused by Bitcoin mining is difficult to do so long as ASIC hardware is used. Many have mentioned that Bitcoin will likely get worse before it gets better; in large part, because Bitcoin is designed to require a continuous influx of more computing power. Even people like Elon Musk, often recognised as a cryptocurrency fan, recently commented that his companies would back out of potential Bitcoin use until it becomes more sustainable. Today, the amount of Bitcoin e-waste produced is around the same as the Netherland’s annual e-waste.

Is the e-waste issue the same for all cryptocurrencies?
Many cryptocurrencies aren’t anywhere near as bad for the environment as Bitcoin. A few cryptocurrencies don’t require mining, for example, which dramatically reduces the e-waste issue. 2 sustainable cryptocurrency examples include Chia which is far less energy-dense, and Bitgreen which is working on sustainable ways to lower mining waste and energy consumption from cryptocurrencies as a whole. This simply demonstrates that there is a “sustainable” way to use cryptocurrencies; it’s just a shame Bitcoin is yet to step up.

What can Bitcoin users do?
The simplest and most obvious thing Bitcoin users can do is to collect the accumulated hardware and drop it off at the closest e-waste recycling centre for recycling. It’s a rather simple task and helps a lot. By sending e-waste to recycling facilities, it also contributes to other “later products” for subsequent consumers. A circular economy is important for a sustainable future, especially when considering e-waste.

This is an issue that can’t simply be ignored and action ought to be taken now. Bitcoin generates as much e-waste as the Netherlands each year along with an unfathomable amount of energy; this is yet again another example of something that must be either regulated or changed soon if we wish to hit our environmental targets. Cryptocurrencies have been hailed “the future of money”. Though, it’s a future that may not be all that green if the likes of Bitcoin don’t change soon.

Released on the 8th of October 2021. -KJDJ
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