'Games can't save the world, but they can slow its demise'

OPINION: Michael Gapper looks at the oft-ignored impact of gaming on the environment

Consoles are power-sucking energy hogs leeching the life force from the very planet upon which we make our home, and every generation demands more power than the last. The slim versions of the PS3 and 360 use less power than the heavyweight originals, but just wait until the next generation comes and your 720 needs to be powered by an artificial black hole.

But there's one thing we're getting right, environmentally speaking. Games consoles have never been packaged as creatively and as responsibly as they are today. Boring? Nope. Get ready for some science.

The 360, Wii, and PS3 all ship packaged in layers of cardboard rather than the expanded polystyrene which filled the boxes of consoles from previous generations. Polystyrene was the packing material of choice for most of the eighties and nineties - the SNES was packaged in a colossal slab of the stuff and even NES games had an EPS block in the box to make the package look bigger and sexier on the shelf.

Where beige '90s electronics go to die.

What most people know as polystyrene is in fact 'expanded polystyrene' - the white, air-filled foam. Regular polystyrene is a dense plastic used in everything from yoghurt pots to jewel cases. It bears a resin ID code of 6; it's a single polymer plastic and can be recycled in a profitable manner. Recycling, remember, is a business and recyling facilities need to turn their collected materials into money if they're to keep recycling and save the entire bloody world.

Expanded polystyrene isn't nearly so easy to recycle. It's the same single polymer plastic but is ninety-eight percent air. Recycled plastics are bought and reused, often by Chinese manufacturers. But if you send expanded polystyrene uncompressed you're going to spend a few hundred pounds on fuel for a few pennies back on the weight.
EPS is usually compacted to one fortieth its original size using purpose-built equipment as locally as is possible. It gets transported to a recycling facility, chopped, turned into a liquid glop, and then made into dense pellets that can be shipped in bulk. Brilliant.


Well, brilliant for companies dealing with massive amounts of the stuff, but not so brilliant for consumers. While it's possible to recycle polystyrene at several locations in the UK, no local authority collects EPS in their doorstop collections. So EPS used to package consumer goods usually ends up in a landfill where it'll go about its business of outlasting everyone you'll ever love.

You did this. Yes, YOU.

The packaging your 360 came in is already being used to blow someone's nose; the packaging your SNES came in is still very much unchanged, and will look pretty much the same a hundred years from now when your great grandchildren are fighting the robots for control of the Earth.

The games industry just adored EPS for a long, long time, and the EPS industry loved it right back. When Microsoft chose to package the colossal original Xbox in expanded polystyrene, the European EPS Association celebrated the event as if they had just lured Luke Skywalker over to the Dark Side. But it was a clear step backwards for the industry.

Back in '99, Sega's Dreamcast had been packed in a cheap moulded pulp tray - the same stuff used for egg boxes - saving money, weight, and helping the planet. Almost every shred of packaging inside the Dreamcast's box - all paper and card, besides the odd plastic bag - can be collected and recycled at local depots.

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