Back in November, I bought a physical copy of Pokemon Shield. It was the first physical game for Switch that I had gotten since launch, and opening the case up, I was shocked: It's so wastefully packaged!
The Switch cartridge is notoriously tiny, and yet, the plastic case is massive. I was bewildered at why such a tall and slender case was designed to house these small games, without even a manual of sorts inside. For a company making "an effort to reduce environmental burden by complying with the environmental laws of each country as a matter to be adhered to in the manufacture of our products," that doesn't seem to be amounting to much.
In September 2019, Sports Interactive, a subsidiary under Sega, announced something that shouldn't be groundbreaking in today's climate. It was releasing Football Manager 2020 in 100% recycled cardboard cases that itself was also fully recyclable, rather than the rigid plastic that plagues most physical releases of video games. Last week, Sega Europe announced it was extending the practice to all of its physical releases. But only on PC.
The limited scope comes down to "first-party guidelines," according to a report from our sister site GamesIndustry.biz. According to a Sega EU representative, companies are "restricted from making its own recyclable packaging for games released on PlayStation, Xbox, or Nintendo." It's also worth mentioning that it's 30% more expensive to make fully recycled cardboard packaging than the traditional plastic route. Meanwhile at the expense of the health of the world, it's cheaper.
"There currently isn't a silver bullet to solve [climate change], but we know from science that there are things that we can do as individuals and companies to help slow it down or reverse it, so we've been looking at ways that we can reduce our carbon footprint," Sports Interactive Studio Director Miles Jacobson told GamesIndustry.biz in September. "The new packaging is one of those ways. No more landfill requirements. Way less plastic. It still looks great. It's still solid. The disc is still secure. But it has less environmental impact in many different ways. So we'd be stupid not to do it, and if anyone from other games or entertainment companies is reading this, you'd be stupid not to do it too."
Jacobson goes on to say that he would be "very disappointed" if other manufacturers didn't learn from Sports Interactive's change—a decision that's more costly for the developer itself, but worth it for how it better benefits the planet. "I just can't think of a single reason why someone wouldn't want to have their work in more eco-friendly packaging," he reiterated to GamesIndustry.biz.
The onus has always been on the consumer to recycle their goods. To put plastic, cardboard, aluminum in recycling bins, or haul them to a local recycling facility. Perhaps the onus should, rather, be more on the companies that create such waste. It's prime time for companies to reevaluate how they package and ship physical video games moving forward, especially as we barrel headfirst into a new console generation this winter.
In 2019, Sony and Microsoft counted themselves among 21 game companies under the Playing for the Planet Alliance, an initiative to take action against the climate crisis. Microsoft pledged to expand its existing commitment to carbon neutrality that was established in 2012, and will be certifying 825,000 Xbox consoles as carbon neutral in a pilot program. Sony, meanwhile, plan to utilize more energy efficient technology and introduce a low power suspend mode for the PlayStation 5. Altogether, the 21 companies in the Playing for the Planet Alliance vow to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30 million tons by 2030.
It's a solid start. Still, Sports Interactive has set an even bigger example in putting its attention where other corporations should: Not just in how we make consoles and games, but looking at the lives of our games after we're done with them. Chris Bratt of People Make Games explored this idea back in November 2019 in the video, "What happens when you try to recycle a game?" In the video, Bratt goes to a recycling facility to recycle an old game, and describes what happens when one recycles a plastic game case and its disc. The disc itself is ground down into polycarbonate—sorted apart from the ink print on the disc—which can be used in any number of recycled goods. In an interview with Richard Kirkman of recycling services Veolia UK, Kirkland says the polypropylene case itself is likely to end up like the polycarbonate disc: ground down until the good bits of it can be recycled fully.
Still, these cases all bare some waste in ink (meanwhile even Sports Interactive thought about that: Football Manager 2020's case is printed with vegetable ink), among other unusable scraps, and that's not even touching the cases that don't get recycled whatsoever and end up in a landfill somewhere. My mind can't help but drift back to that Pokemon Shield case, and how much plastic it uses versus the actual size of the itty bitty cartridge.
Climate change is a threat the entire world needs to take more seriously, especially the companies that are enabling the biggest carbon footprints around. While most games are moving to digital-only, it's not necessarily "greener" to download games exclusively. The bigger the file, the worse the energy cost. And if a company is operating on what's been deemed as the "dirty cloud"—that is, not on renewable, "clean" energy—it's all the worse for the environment.
"There is a real impact in powering all our different online activities, from our Facebook pages to our video streaming. It's not inherently green to download," Gary Cook, a senior IT analyst at Greenpeace, told The Guardian in 2015. In 2014, Microsoft made a commitment to operate on 100% renewable energy, and according to Greenpeace's 2017 Click Clean "dirty energy" report, it as of-then uses just 32% clean energy, while 23% of its total is made up of natural gas, 31% coal, and 10% nuclear energy. Apple, comparatively in the lead on the clean energy front, is at 83% when it comes to utilizing clean energy.
We're pleased to announce that all of our future physical releases of PC games will be launched in fully recycled packaging! Total War: ROME II – Enemy at the Gates Edition from Creative Assembly signals our intent to continue with this environmental initiative. pic.twitter.com/SlPcUCikn3— SEGA Europe (@SEGA_Europe) January 30, 2020
Heading into the next generation, going green needs to be more than a pat-on-the-back to look good to shareholders. The rising heat climate across the planet has been melting glaciers, and thus, raising sea levels. Deadly heat waves, in turn, have grown even more common worldwide. The increasingly unpredictable weather is making agriculture suffer; the arctic and its animals are disappearing before our very eyes. If carbon emissions aren't halved soon, the world's climate will raise 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2030. It's all these pressing issues, and much more, why we need a president who is tough on climate change and corporations that seek to benefit off environmentally disastrous policies, not one that doesn't "believe it."
In 2020 and all the years humanity has left before our reckless usage threatens the very ground we live on, I hope game developers and publishers—first-party, third-party, and boutique indie publishers—think beyond just reducing carbon emissions, and look to reworking the packaging for the games they ship out as well. If the developers of Football Manager 2020 can eat 30% of the cost of shipping a game and be proud about its reduced impact on the environment, then the rest of the industry can suck it up too.