What’s the game industry’s plastic footprint?

Plastic debris is strewn across a beach, tangled in with seaweed, with palms in the distance.
Photo by Dustan Woodhouse / Unsplash

Hello! Quick little note at the top before we dive into the main post – once again (and with absolutely zero warning) my book’s publisher is running a steep discount on Digital Games After Climate Change. It’s currently 75% off bringing it down to simply expensive rather than outrageous. If the website is to be believed, a paperback version might be coming? But the price for that is no different to the old hardback price? That seems... wrong. Regardless – if you prefer to read physical media instead of digital, now’s the time to pick up a cheap (hardback) copy if you’ve been holding out.

And as a reminder – I make zero money from sales of the book (academic publishing is a scam and should be owned by the public who pay for it!) so I'm more than happy to share the PDF version free of charge – just let me know you’d like a copy. The best way to support the work I do is still to grab a subscription right here at GTG.

On the potential of the games industry to decarbonise, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. For an industry that's so heavily electrified already, the solutions exist. They’re feasible (if not always cheap or ubiquitous) and there’s only a few small parts of the industry that should fall into the genuinely “hard to abate” category of emissions, such as hardware manufacturing. These often uses huge amounts of water, raw materials, chemicals, and energy. But it’s the exception – once we have flooded the world with clean, abundant renewable energy, most of the games industry’s emissions just start to evaporate.

But there’s at least one area where the potential doesn't seem to be realised yet, and I don’t see a whole lot of action. It's an area which could make a big impact on reducing the burden the games industry currently places on the planet, and it's the manufacture and sale of plastic game discs.

There's reasons to be optimistic even here: the games industry is moving to digital distribution, with the PC pretty much there already, having set expectations. Many games companies have made it an explicit goal of their ESG strategy to minimise emissions through digital distribution – though in most cases I would describe it as largely an exercise in recognising and going with the flow, rather than consciously and actively swimming against the tide. The last time I saw it mentioned was in 2020, when it was reported that digital sales on console had surpassed physical sales. I can only imagine that trend has continued with the new digital only consoles, the greater uptake of things like Gamepass, and so on. A fully digital distribution system follows other industrial trajectories towards greater electrification, fitting with long term national net zero targets (see the long summary of the US’ net zero strategy I wrote last year, for more on this topic).

Joshua Aslan’s excellent PhD thesis of 2020 showed that there were still some instances where it made sense from a strict emissions accounting perspective to buy games on disc rather than wait for a lengthy download, or stream game data from a service like Stadia (RIP). From a longer term perspective though, as electricity grids decarbonise these edge-cases are going to shrink and eventually disappear, and that’s even before we consider what we actually do with all these discs once we’re done with them. We’ve seen compelling evidence that internet infrastructure is increasing in efficiency as well, even as absolute energy (and thus emissions) from network infrastructure is (probably) increasing, as data and bandwidths increase. The recent DIMPACT research paper on internet streaming emissions is illustrative here, and there’s some really fascinating nitty-gritty discussion in it about the right approaches to calculating network emissions I won't go into here.

But there are also issues still to be resolved with digital downloads – especially on consoles. For instance, I still struggle to recommend the digital-only PS5 for the sole reason that PlayStation has a monopoly on the pricing of games in the PS store. In fact, it’s actually kept me from playing some of the games I would have bought for much much cheaper from retail. There’s also no such thing as second hand digital game sales, which is perhaps a shame though the steep discounts that Steam offers presents a counter benefit that we don't see to nearly the same extent with physical sales. The loss of game retail also stands to impact both gamers and the business model of a number of major retailers – not to mention the people who work there. As an aside, I have heard rumours that it was precisely for this reason that the console makers wouldn’t, or couldn’t, commit to fully digital game consoles this generation. Make of that what you will.

But those issues aside, I really want to talk about is the upside to finally ditching the discs from the console games industry – a huge, massive mountain of plastic we can avoid.

Thinking about the plastic footprint of the games industry ended up sending me down a bit of a rabbit hole. Yes it’s that time again – it's time for Yet Another Spreadsheet. This time, I've collected all the data I could on how much plastic has been made and sold by the games industry over the last two decades (give or take).

Using data from VGChartz (which, for software, seems to only go up to 2018 – or possibly only includes official published data after that? Unclear) I’ve tried to estimate the total weight of plastic discs that have been produced for consoles since the start of the PS2 era (so roughly from 2000 till 2018, or now-ish where data allows). I gave the average weight of a disc as 15.5 grams – a figure I arrived at as part of the process of writing DGACC, measuring half a dozen discs for the process (there was a little more variation than I expected).

But discs are not the only plastic parts – so I also calculated an estimate for the total weight of plastic discs plus plastic cases, using a figure of 80 grams for the whole thing. This includes the disc, any inner material (paper, card etc), the plastic case, plus the thin layer of individual outer plastic wrap many games get sold with – I got this measurement off a (still sealed) copy of Resident Evil 7 Biohazard for PS4 which I just happened to find lying around the house. To account for some of the weight being paper/card I’ve used a figure of 90% for the amount of a total disc+case weight which is plastic. That seems generous from my years of buying console games, which seem to be reducing the size and thickness of their inserts. I'm not touching collectors editions though. And if we wanted to get really pedantic, probably most shipments of boxed games from manufacturer to retail involved pallets that were shrink-wrapped for transit – but I haven’t the foggiest how I’d go about estimating that so I haven’t tried.

I have also made some very rough estimates of the amount of plastic produced as part of game consoles themselves over that same period – though I’ve not got nearly enough data to really feel confident here. All we have are the measurements of the weight of plastic in a single PS4, which came out to 511 grams (of ABS for other plastic aficionados). These measurements come via Lewis Gordon’s classic 2019 piece in the Verge (shout out to Lewis who became a dad for the first time last month – congrats dude!). As the PS4 is on the rather large side as far as modern consoles go, I’ve scaled that down to a completely arbitrary round number (300 grams) and used that instead. This still might be a bit off, given some of the tiny consoles like the Wii and the Gamecube – so YMMV! If someone wants to give me a big pile of money to go and buy one of each of these legacy consoles, disassemble them, weight their plastic contents, and make some observations about their type, etc., please get in touch.

Lastly, since VGChartz doesn’t have software sales figures for the Xbox One, or either the Xbox Series/PS5, none of these are included in this figure! Which is probably appropriate if the data is only going up to 2018 anyway. If anyone has (or can point me towards sales numbers for these platforms, I will update the sheet and this post).

Similarly, due to the Gamecube using a mini-dvd size disc, I’ve excluded it from just-the-disc estimates (and its sales numbers were pretty low anyway – 200m is not to be sneezed at though) but I have included the ‘cube for the disc+case level estimate as the difference there is likely to be marginal in the overall picture. The same applies for the Nintendo Switch, as a return to the cartridge based game media I decided to exclude it from the disc calculations, but not from the total disc+case calcs which might have been a mistake but hey. If I had a bit more time I’d be getting my Switch cases out and measuring them too. Something for a future post, perhaps.

Finally, one last, huge caveat is that these calculations assume 100% physical games sales rate, from the year 2000 all the way up to whenever the data ends (2018 possibly, for discs) so keep that in mind as another big, big, BIG possible variable hanging over these estimates. I have no idea what percentage over what sort of timeline console game sales shifted to digital.

So with all that said – take these estimates with a grain of salt, and as always, if you have either better data or a better methodology, please point me at it! Peer review is a glorious thing, especially when it doesn’t hold up publications for months and months, and is done in the spirit of productive collaboration.

The Results

For the three main living-room consoles we have data for, the weight of just the plastic game discs from 2000 to 2018(ish) comes out to 97,301 metric tons.

For a sense of the scale of that, a fully laden 747 weights around 412 metric tonnes. So that’s plastic game discs equivalent to 236 fully loaded 747s. That's just plastic discs!

How tall would a stack of those discs be? With each one 1.2mm tall, our hypothetical stack of over 7.4 billion discs would be almost 9 kilometers tall (5.6 miles). Granted, it's a skinny stack, but yowza. The Burj Kalifa is only 892m tall, so our stack is over 10x taller than the tallest building on the planet.

A picture of the Burj Khalifa as it towers over Dubai, with other buildings in the distance, and pools nearby.
Photo by Riyas Mohammed / Unsplash | Not pictured: a stack of plastic discs 10x its size.

As we would expect, for the same consoles and the same period, discs plus cases comes out to an even larger figure: 663,436 metric tons. That’s 1,610 fully loaded 747s, or according to the delightfully named ‘Weight of Stuff dot com’, not quite two Empire State Buildings (365,000 tons). 1.8 Empire State Buildings worth of game discs plus boxes have likely been produced, shipped, and sold to gamers over the years considered here.

And what about the plastics in game consoles? Keeping in mind that this is a much less accurate estimate, it came out to a similarly impressive 251,817 metric tons of plastic. Not quite an Empire State Building worth of plastics, but close to 2/3rds.

Okay, one last bonus figure to add to the above guesstimates. Joshua Aslan’s PhD study from 2020 provided a figure for the CO2e emissions from the production of single plastic discs. He gives us the figure of 270 grams of CO2e emitted for the production of a PS4 disc, which in the absence of any better sources, we can madly apply to all game disc production and hope it's indicative. It's probalby off, by a little or a lot, we can't really say. But if we do that, the total production of all those plastic discs – just the discs! not even the plastic case, the paper inserts, the plastic wrap, the carton its shipped in, the shrink-wrapped pallet, let alone the emissions of driving/shipping/rail freighting those games – comes out to a slightly terrifying 1.75 million tonnes of CO2e (though remember it's a very rough guesstimate).

Even taking that number with a grain of salt – that is a staggering order of magnitude of CO2 – especially if it’s something that we have the ability to address right now. The plastic past of the games industry doesn’t have to be its future. It’s worth doing whatever we can to avoid locking in another 20 years of this, and figuring out how what it's going to take.

The other reason is that plastic sucks! The two main types of plastics discussed here – both the polycarbonate type used for discs, and the ABS type used in console construction – are not widely recycled. Not because it’s impossible to do so, but simply because the infrastructure for kerbside collection of either is not common. As the website of one ABS recycler notes:

ABS is not conventionally recycled through street-collection programs, and as such does not have its own unique resin identification number. Alternatively, it can be classified under code 7, or “other”.

That big old 7 "other" just means "this shit is almost certainly going to landfill." Heck, in most of Australia, even more common resin codes like polypropylene (PP, resin code 5) and polystyrene (PS, resin code 6) are almost never actually recycled, just tossed in landfill. It’s the same story for polycarbonate discs, which come under 7 "other". In both discs and consoles, the difficulty in separating out the different parts is as much a part of the barrier as anything else. Discs have the polycarb component, but also a thin metal reflective layer which (and I am just guessing here) probably requires some specialised tools to separate from one another. If it's even possible. It's almost certainly not economical to do so, as both ABS and PC are cheap and widely accessible virgin plastics.

The current system for game distribution, in which manufacturers who print game discs, shipping them around the world to retailers, only to have players buy them, take them home and install the game to their console hard-drives anyway, only to sit on a shelf for years and years afterwards before being tossed out, doesn’t make much sense for most people. The fact that manufacturers have no responsibility for what happens to the discs once they’re sold or discarded is also not the sort of situation that can continue in a more climate oriented world, or in a truly circular economy. Extended producer responsibility schemes and other policy initiatives (a container deposit schemes for discs, anyone?) could drive the transition faster, and see a more orderly, managed collection of the mountains of old game discs that are surely entering municipal waste streams on a nearly daily basis. Ultimately, it’s the console platform owners – Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo – who are going to have to step up to the plate and figure out what a digital only future for console games looks like, and how one earth we get there. Anything less simply isn't going to cut it anymore.

It’s time to stop building Empire State Buildings out of plastic.