Cryptocurrency has taken the digital world by storm, with over 1,000,000 individual users throwing their computer rigs – no matter how small or powerful – into mining Bitcoin, Ethereum, and more. However, a new report outlines the hidden cost of cryptocurrency transactions.
A single transaction of Bitcoin produces 272 grams (9.59 ounces) of electronic waste, equal to the weight of two iPhones being thrown away – and when scaled up to the enormous number of transactions per year, Bitcoin now produces 30.7 metric kilotons of e-waste a year.
The study was published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling.
Bitcoin mining is how Bitcoin enters circulation, but also how transactions using Bitcoin are verified. To do so, individuals must utilize their computer hardware to solve complex mathematical problems, which – if successful – adds a "block" to the blockchain and introduces a set amount of Bitcoin into circulation. Think of it like a receipt that keeps getting longer, tracking every transaction and adding a new bit of currency each time.
With powerful computers, comes intense power usage. Mining rigs are often left on 24/7 for maximum profit, pulling huge amounts of electricity while large graphics cards complete the transactions. Some use dedicated mining rigs, called ASICs, while others use custom rigs that can involve hundreds of graphics cards in one system. Both require large amounts of power to run and cool.
The report dives into the true environmental cost of Bitcoin mining, which now uses significantly more electricity than the entirety of the Philippines.
Alongside the electricity used, mining generates e-waste. E-waste encompasses toxic chemicals leaching into soil and water systems, poor recycling of electronic hardware, and any other environmental impacts of discarded devices.
At present, the researchers state the e-waste produced by Bitcoin rivals the amount made by the Netherlands, but even this huge number could be much worse.
Currently, Bitcoin is experiencing a huge price dip, with 10 percent total value lost over the past few days. However, should it return to peak prices like those of early 2021, the researchers believe the e-waste produced could over double to 64.4 metric kilotons. The environment is also not the only thing suffering from the mining craze – consumers wishing for semiconductors have been directly impacted by a shortage, although mining is not the sole cause of this.
So, is this likely to change? While other cryptocurrencies have made the switch to Proof of Stake, a protocol that uses far less electricity than Proof of Work, Bitcoin remains on the older protocol and has not announced any intention to change just yet. Some experts are predicting that the currency will, one day, switch to PoS, but is simply waiting to see how other high-profile cryptos perform under the change.