What is Bitcoin?
Bitcoin is one of the 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 an incredible 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 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 may be 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 which is the equivalent to 7.3 kilograms of e-waste per person worldwide.
What is 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 lead to detrimental impacts on the local environment when disposed of. If a phone, for example, is thrown into a landfill, over time the product will settle into the soil or base of the pit and slowly break down the rare metals causing them to leak out of the product and into the soil. When this happens, the soil will become contaminated and poisonous. Once the metals begin to spread, they can reach waterways and other natural environments which can lead to poisonous water impacting human, animal and plant life. E-waste has also been shown to cause contamination of local air quality, this happens when the e-waste warms 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 annually. If e-waste is properly disposed of in recycling centres, then the impact is minor. However, if e-waste is not disposed of correctly, the potential to cause huge impacts for all walks of life drastically increases.
Can e-waste be recycled?
E-waste can be recycled but not in your conventional kerbside bin. Unfortunately, due to the chemicals and rare metals, recycling e-waste is quite complicated and so there are only a few places where recycling e-waste is possible. E-waste recycling is also expensive therefore limiting certain businesses and countries to how much they can recycle. Currently, less than 20% of all e-waste in the world is correctly disposed of (recycled). Europe has the highest percentage of effective recycling of e-waste at around 45%. However, with the millions of tons produced annually, it’s still not enough.
How does Bitcoin generate e-waste?
According to economists, a single Bitcoin transaction is the equivalent of throwing away 272 grams of e-waste or the same as throwing away around two iPhone 12 minis. But how?
Many people in the world digitally mine Bitcoin to hopefully generate more of the cryptocurrency and then potentially sell for stacks of money. This is where Bitcoin starts to create environmental problems. When mining, people need specific hardware devices called ‘application-specific integrated circuits’ or ASIC for short which only last a short amount of time and leads to large amounts of e-waste being thrown away. 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 which equates to around 272 grams of e-waste per transaction. This number is only rising with approximately 400,000 transactions completed each day in 2021 equating to 146 million transactions projected for the entirety of 2021.
Other environmental issues surrounding Bitcoin:
While e-waste is a huge problem and clearly the issue that stands out the most,
Bitcoin also uses extensive amounts of energy in order 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 million to 15 million tons. This is back when Bitcoin didn’t have anywhere near as much publicity so we can certainly expect that these emissions have risen over recent years. The amount of emissions produced from mining a single Bitcoin are also based on certain locations. For example, China’s emissions from mining a single Bitcoin are projected to be around four times as much compared to a country like Canada.
Is there a way to reduce the amount of Bitcoin hardware thrown away?
Unfortunately, reducing the amount of e-waste caused by Bitcoin mining is very hard to do as the longer the ASIC hardware is used for, the less efficient it is and the more expensive it becomes to store, making it almost impossible for miners to want to continue to use the same hardware device. Many have pointed out that Bitcoin will most likely get worse in terms of environmental damage before it begins to get better. This is because Bitcoin is designed to continue to require more and more computing power. This increases how energy-dense it is. Even people like Elon Musk who has been considered quite a fan of this cryptocurrency commented recently suggesting his companies would back out of potentially using Bitcoin until it becomes far more sustainable. Currently, the amount of Bitcoin e-waste produced is around the same as the Netherlands annual e-waste. However, based on the current predictions, this could soon escalate past the statistics found in the Netherlands.
Is the e-waste issue the same for all cryptocurrencies?
Many cryptocurrencies aren’t anywhere near as bad for the environment as Bitcoin and have shown many ways of being sustainable. Quite a few cryptocurrencies don’t require mining which drastically reduces the e-waste issue. Two sustainable cryptocurrency examples include Chia which is far less energy-dense and Bitgreen which is working on sustainable ways to lower mining waste and make cryptocurrency a far less energy-consuming activity. These are two examples of green cryptocurrencies but there are many more. This shows us that there is a sustainable way to use cryptocurrencies, it’s just a shame the biggest digital currency in the world hasn’t stepped up yet.
What to do if you are a Bitcoin user:
The simplest and most obvious thing you can do is to collect all the hardware you have used to mine Bitcoin and after a while, drop it off at the closest e-waste recycling centre to be recycled. It’s a rather simple task and would help a lot. You can help be responsible for reducing the amount of soil that is contaminated and even waterways potentially saving lives. By sending your e-waste to recycling facilities, you will also help contribute to other products being produced for other consumers to enjoy in later years, meaning you are responsible for potentially saving lives and bringing joy to others. A circular economy is important for a sustainable future, especially when talking about e-waste when the negative and positive effects are labelled this clearly.
Bitcoin’s quiet e-waste problems are causing massive issues for the environment and need to be fixed soon. Bitcoin alone has the potential to be responsible for a drastic decline in human and other organisms’ health. This is an issue that can’t simply be ignored and action must be taken now. Bitcoin generates as much e-waste as the Netherlands each year and the statistics certainly suggest the amount of Bitcoin e-waste is rising. This is yet again another example of something that must be changed soon in order to hit environmental targets set by countries. Bitcoin must get its act together and help create a more sustainable cryptocurrency for millions to mine, sell, etc. Something will change…let’s just hope it’s soon for all living organisms’ sake.