A single Bitcoin transaction generates the same amount of electronic waste as throwing two iPhones in the trash, according to a new analysis by economists from the Dutch Central Bank and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While the carbon footprint of bitcoin has been well studied, less attention has been paid to the massive change in computers that the cryptocurrency is motivated by. Specialized computer chips called ASICs are sold with no other purpose than to run the algorithms that secure the bitcoin network, a process called mining that rewards those who participate in bitcoin payments. But since only the latest chips are energy-efficient enough to mine profitably, efficient miners constantly need to replace ASICs with newer, more powerful ones.
“The lifespan of bitcoin mining hardware is still limited to just 1.29 years,” researchers Alex de Vries and Christian Steele write in the research paper, The Problem of Bitcoin’s Growing E-waste, published in the Journal of Resources, Conservation and Recycling.
As a result, we estimate that the entire Bitcoin network currently revolves through 30.7 metric tons of equipment per year. This figure is comparable to the amount of small telecommunications equipment waste produced by a country like the Netherlands. “
In 2020, the Bitcoin network processed 112.5 million transactions (compared to 539 billion processed by traditional payment service providers in 2019), according to economists, meaning that each individual transaction “is equivalent to at least 272 grams of e-waste.” This is the weight of the two iPhone 12 minis.
The reason e-waste is such a problem for cryptocurrencies is that, unlike most computing devices, an ASIC has no alternative use other than bitcoin mining, and if it cannot be used to mine bitcoin profitably, it has no future purpose whatsoever. The authors note that it is theoretically possible for these devices to regain their ability to operate profitably at a later time if Bitcoin prices suddenly increase and mining income increases.
“However, there are several factors that generally prevent the life of mining hardware from being significantly extended,” they add. It costs money to store mining hardware, and the longer it is stored, the less likely it will be profitable at all.
The authors also warn that the e-waste problem will likely increase if the price of bitcoin continues to rise, as it will stimulate more investment in and replacement of ASIC hardware.
The paper concludes that if society tries to reduce the e-waste problem, it will need to replace the “entire Bitcoin mining process with a more sustainable alternative,” and the paper proposes “proof of stake,” an empirical replacement process. Ethereum, the successor to Bitcoin, announced in May plans to move to proof-of-stake within months, although the transition has yet to take place.
Other bitcoin alternatives have been less successful in reducing their environmental impact. Chia, a cryptocurrency based on the “time-and-place” algorithm, has been accused of leading to a shortage of hard drives and SSDs, a type of storage media common in fast computers. “Instead of just wasting electricity, Chia chews SSDs at an impressive rate, and it completely destroyed the market for large hard drives,” said David Gerrard, a cryptocurrency expert.
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