Bitcoin’s growing e-waste problem

Almost five years after Digiconomist first started providing insights into the energy consumption of the Bitcoin network, a new study in collaboration with Christian Stoll from MIT now provides new insights in another major component of Bitcoin’s wasteful design.

The new study titled “Bitcoin’s growing e-waste problem” was published in the journal Resources, Conservation and Recycling on September 13, 2021, and quantifies that the entire network already generates up to 30.7 metric kilotons of electronic waste per year. “This level is comparable to the small IT equipment waste produced by a country such as the Netherlands.”

The study explains that this electronic waste is the result of the use of highly specialized single-purpose machines for the process of mining Bitcoins, which quickly become obsolete as miners “race to develop and deploy more efficient mining hardware” in order to gain a competitive edge over their competition. The study quantifies that, on average, the time for a mining device to become unprofitable sums up to less than 1.29 years, after which they can serve no further purpose. On an estimated amount of 2.9 million active machines weighing 39.75 metric kilotons combined, this results 30.7 metric kilotons of e-waste annually. E-waste in general “represents a growing threat to our environment, from toxic chemicals and heavy metals leaching into soils, to air and water pollutions caused by improper recycling.”

It’s further added that “at peak Bitcoin price levels seen early in 2021, the annual amount of e-waste may grow beyond 64.4 metric kilotons in the midterm.” But even without this additional growth, the current amount of electronic waste generation represents 272 grams of e-waste per transaction processed on the blockchain. This is the same amount of weight as half an iPad or two iPhones 12 mini. Lastly, it’s noted that the need to produce these machines in the first place “may disrupt global semiconductor supply chains” amid “soaring demand for mining hardware.”

The article concludes that the most desirable solution to this e-waste output would be to replace the (Proof-of-Work) mining system in its entirety. Alternatives like Proof-of-Stake “remove the incentive to engage in a computational arms race and only require a device with an Internet connection to participate.” By implementing this in Bitcoin, the network would address both its energy consumption and e-waste output.

The Digiconomist Bitcoin Electronic Waste Monitor has been updated to reflect the new methodology presented in the study. Here it’s now possible to track developments in Bitcoin’s e-waste output on a day-to-day basis.

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