There’s no doubt that cryptocurrency in its current form is bad news for our planet. But while much attention has been paid to crypto’s carbon footprint and electrical use, its impact on e-waste hasn’t received similar scrutiny, until now.
A new study out this month in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling has come up with a methodology to estimate how much waste bitcoin, the market leader in crypto, generates each year. The researchers state that this is due to the short lifespan of bitcoin mining devices, such as the specialised ASIC computer chips whose sole purpose is to mine bitcoin.
ASIC chips are constantly being replaced for newer, more power-efficient ones by miners, according to the Guardian, and are typically are only in use for 1.29 years. This, undoubtedly, leads to a whole lot of waste. In fact, the researchers put a number on it.
“As a result, we estimate that the whole bitcoin network currently cycles through 30.7 metric kilotons of equipment per year,” the researchers wrote. “This number is comparable to the amount of small IT and telecommunication equipment waste produced by a country like the Netherlands.”
While most of us know that a kiloton is no joke — it’s more than 2.2 million pounds–it can be a bit hard to imagine all that e-waste. The researchers state that each bitcoin transaction generated at least 272 grams of e-waste (.59 pounds). The Guardian broke it down: That’s about two iPhone 12 Minis worth of e-waste.
There were 112.5 million bitcoin transactions in 2020.
In other words, that’s millions upon millions of iPhone Minis worth of waste per year. If you didn’t feel bad for our planet before — e-waste can release toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the soil, while improper recycling can cause air and water pollution — I hope you do now.
The ASIC chips could in theory be used again if bitcoin prices and profits increase, but there are many barriers that prevent miners from using them again. One factor is the cost from storing the hardware, the researchers point out. Additionally, the longer bitcoin mining devices are stored, the less likely they will ever be profitable.
Nonetheless, the e-waste problem can get worse very fast. It all depends on the price of bitcoin. The researchers state that considering the peak bitcoin price levels in 2021, which reached more than $US60,000 ($82,488), e-waste could grow to more than 64.4 metric kilotons in the midterm.
Tackling bitcoin’s e-waste problem would require swapping the current mining process out for a more sustainable alternative, such as proof of stake, the paper points out.