A Different Type of Buried Treasure

Across the centuries, there have been many, many stories of treasure buried throughout the world. The idea, typically, involves pirates or other criminals. After stealing the loot from their victims, these career criminals become targets of the same. Instead of sailing around with these valuables, they’d stop off on some island somewhere, bury their riches, and come back as needed in order to get gold or jewels to buy things — or so the stories often go. In reality, buried treasure is more myth than fact, and that shouldn’t be shocking. If you think about the whole idea, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to do any of the above.

But buried treasure definitely exists. Just go to Newport, a city in Wales, and visit their landfill. There’s about $500,000,000 — yes, half a billion dollars — sitting there, most likely about five or six feet below the trash.

It’s not gold nor jewels — and it wasn’t put there by pirates. It’s all bitcoin, and it’s in a hard drive that probably shouldn’t have been thrown out.

In 2009, a Welsh IT professional named James Howells heard about an emerging idea called cryptocurrency, and specifically, bitcoin. He had a high-powered computer that most people at the time used for gaming, and Howells repurposed it to generate bitcoin for himself via a process called “bitcoin mining.” Whenever he wasn’t using his computer — which typically meant overnights and weekends — the computer was working away, earning bitcoin for him. At the time, it was relatively easy to mine bitcoin in this way, and over the course of a few months, Howells amassed about 8,000 bitcoins.

At the time, those were worth about $0.05 each, or about $400 total. And getting it wasn’t free or easy. As the New Yorker explains: “The mining took a lot of processing power, causing the laptop to overheat. The computer’s whirring fan began to irritate [his partner,] Hafina, and he decided to stop. ‘It wasn’t worth putting up a fight,’ he remembers. The coins had no value at the time, and there was no reason to think that they ever would. ‘It was just mining for fun,’ he said. ‘It was an experiment.’ The electricity required to keep his computer going had cost him about ten pounds [or about $15].”

So, he stopped.. A few months, maybe a year passed by, and the computer — now again used for gaming — met its end. As the Guardian notes, the machine “broke after he accidentally tipped lemonade on it, so he dismantled it for parts.” He sold most of them straight away, but kept the hard drive for no discernable reason; it sat in his desk drawer for a few years. But in the summer of 2013 — he’s not entirely sure when — he and his partner cleaned up a bit, and the hard drive made its way into the trash. Either he or his partner took the trash bag to the local landfill in Newport. Not a big deal — until Howells realized that the private key — basically, a password of 64 random numbers and letters that gave him access to his 8,000 bitcoins — was on that drive.

Oh, and those bitcoins weren’t worth $400. They were worth closer to $1.25 million.

The drive was gone — but Howells knew its general vicinity. It’s somewhere in the Newport landfill. In 2013, shortly after discovering his mistake, Howells went to the landfill to retrieve it, but the site managers told him it was a lost cause. As he told the Guardian that year in the above-linked story, “I had a word with one of the guys down there, explained the situation. And he actually took me out in his truck to where the landfill site is, the current ditch they’re working on. It’s about the size of a football field, and he said something from three or four months ago would be about three or four feet down.” Typically, municipalities don’t allow people to go digging in the landfill — and this was no exception. As the Newport City Council would later tell the BBC (see the end of this video), “excavation is not possible under our environmental permit. Work of that nature would have [a] huge negative environmental impact.”

For the decade-plus since, Howells has been looking for ways to get around this rule. He secured funding from investors who will get a share of his bitcoin riches if he ever recovers the drive. He’s used that money to hire environmental engineers to minimize the impact of a dig, investigated using AI to help locate the drive (to account for the needle-in-a-haystack problem), and also has outlined a plan to share the windfall with Newport if he’s successful in cashing out his bounty. And while Newport has shown no interest in changing its mind, the last part of Howells’ plan may be a good reason to: over that ten-plus years, the value of Howells’ 8,000 bitcoin has skyrocketed. Today, they’re not worth $1.25 million. As of this writing, one bitcoin sells for north of $60,000, making Howells’ lost drive worth nearly $500 million — or about $4,000 per Newport resident.

Today’s Bonus fact: Had Howells lived in Switzerland, his story would be simpler: the drive would simply be gone. That’s because Switzerland has no active landfills. Starting in 2000, any combustible waste (which is almost all of it) can’t be sent to landfills by law. As SWI reports, no communal waste is sent to landfills; roughly half is recycled and half is converted into energy via incineration.

From the Archives: How Long It Takes to Find a Needle in a Haystack: Yes, someone tested this out.