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E-Waste vs. Conventional Waste

Updated: Jun 14, 2021


With so many of our modern-day lives being electronicized, it has become increasingly difficult to steer our way through the world while considering the obscure and sometimes misunderstood effects of e-waste. How do we know which is better? The question can come in many forms, whether it’s deciding to take notes on paper or digitally or swapping paper currency for cryptocurrency. E-waste can sometimes feel like a whole universe of new problems to consider.

First, we have to understand what e-waste refers to. E-waste describes the waste that comes with household appliances that use electricity through outlets or batteries. This can range anywhere from phones and computers to coffee machines and refrigerators. In today’s eyes, e-waste is a concern because components of electrical devices are sometimes toxic and do not decompose easily. E-waste poses a risk to genetic and physical defects in people when exposure is increased, so it’s important that people treat e-waste as a serious issue.

Let’s consider the first scenario—paper or digital? Digital note-taking is sometimes touted as an eco-friendly alternative to paper, seeing as paper is such an abundant (and sometimes wasted) resource in schools and professional environments. Paper made from traditional wood pulp can be put through recycling five to seven times before the fibers begin to wear out. Producing a sheet of paper with no recycled content on average takes about 0.03 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents into the atmosphere and recycled paper releases about 0.017 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. Of course, using paper also comes with the concern of deforestation and other environmental impacts as well. Compare that to the emissions of an hour of note-taking on an iPad, equivalent to 0.004 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents. In this scenario, the iPad wins (unless you have ridiculously small handwriting). But, this brings back the argument of the iPad itself, instead of just the emissions from its active use, including its manufacture, transportation, and end of life. All of this adds up to the emissions of 113 spiral bound notebooks to equal the emissions of a single iPad! So, confusingly, there is no clear solution. If the iPad is used many, many years before discarded and recycled properly, it could become a viable choice, so much of it depends on the willingness of the consumer to use an appliance for a long time before retiring it. Especially for note-taking, personal preference is a huge factor as well. Advice for now would be to stick with your paper notes (preferably made from recycled materials), unless you are dedicated enough to do digital note-taking and make sure that the parts of your electronics are disposed of and recycled properly.

In the second scenario, cryptocurrency is considered. Let’s look specifically at Bitcoin—the world’s largest cryptocurrency. According to Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, Bitcoin accounts for 0.4% of global energy consumption and 0.34% of the world’s electricity production. While these figures are small, they are not at all miniscule when placed in context. If Bitcoin became a country, it would become the 40th highest energy-consuming country, equivalent to Denmark and ranking above Colombia and Czech Republic. One Bitcoin transaction could power an average American home for a month. And yet, this is only considering Bitcoin. There are thousands of other cryptocurrencies on the market, each with a staggering effect on the environment. Similarly to NFTs, a type of digital artwork, the answer is much more easy to understand here. Cryptocurrency is not Earth’s friend.

As demonstrated by these two scenarios, comparing e-waste and conventional waste is not a simple process and must be determined on a case-by-case basis. To effectively establish which is better for the Earth requires a bit of research and a zoomed-out perspective to consider every trade-off. This does not only apply to e-waste, but other environmental issues as well. Data can be manipulatively placed to cause confusion, but in the end you, as the consumer, have the power to make your own decisions. Choose wisely!


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