With the help of Claire Barlow from the University of Cambridge and John Durrell, a specialist in superconductor engineering, The Verge’s Lewis Gordon goes through the components and materials that go into the Playstation 4 and go over their impact on the environment.
They start with the console’s top lid, which is made from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). This is, in fact, virgin plastic and isn’t made from already recycled plastic. From the lid alone, there is a huge cost in terms of the amount of carbon dioxide that is produced from only manufacturing the lid of the console alone.
Let’s hypothesize that the 511 grams of ABS spread throughout the machine are actually virgin plastic. How might it have been produced? This is where things get trippy. Like almost every form of plastic on the planet, ABS is made from petrochemicals that are derived from petroleum, the fossil fuel we commonly refer to as crude oil. The substance materialized over millions of years as fossilized organisms like zooplankton and algae were covered by stagnant water and further layers of these dead animals and plants. Try to imagine not only how slow that process is (geologists call this “deep time”) but also the near-instantaneous speed at which the oil was extracted from the earth. Now consider its carbon residue just sitting in the atmosphere, slowly helping make the planet hotter. As I stared at the plastic, these head-spinning thoughts flashed through my mind.
Materials such as gold and tin are used on the circuit board of the console. While only a small amount of of these materials are used, the mining process means that vast amounts of water are needed to mine the gold as well as the use of chemicals to make the gold easier to mine. If you think your console only contains a small amount of these materials, then consider the fact that Sony has sold over 100 millions units of the PS4 since it’s launch. Now you start to realize just how much goes into mining the gold for these consoles.
Low-cost thinking extends to the limited use of more expensive metals. Occasional pieces of gold materialize on the main circuit board where various components are held in place by a tin-based solder. When it comes to the open pit and hard rock mining, the extraction methods responsible for some of the world’s gold (as well as the copper and neodymium found in the machine), there’s the actual blowing up of the earth. But enormous quantities of water are also required for mineral processing, dust suppression, slurry pipelines (to transport minerals in remote areas), and, last but by no means least, employees' needs. Another extraction process called cyanide leaching sprays the toxic chemical over mined ore to dissolve the gold, thereby making it easier to extract. This comes with its own ecological and health risks if the cyanide leaks into the local area. Each method is grim for the environment where metals are often scattered diffusely throughout the rock.
Finally, there’s the lithium-ion battery in the console’s controllers. It too has a damaging impact on the environment.
The PlayStation 4’s 8.9 billion kilogram carbon footprint leaves out other environmental impacts like pollutants that don’t end up in our carbon-soaked atmosphere. Take the controller’s lithium-ion battery, the same kind of chargeable technology powering electric cars. Lithium is produced by drilling holes into salt flats — usually found in massive crater-like lakes — and pumping brine to the surface. The important bit, lithium carbonate, is subsequently extracted through a chemical process. In recent years, pollution from the extraction process has led to the death of animals and crops, severely impacting local communities in countries like Argentina and China. The lithium that makes our controllers wireless is just another material that scars not only the landscape but the lives of those who call it home.
This piece by Lewis Gordon really hits home the cost of technology on the environment. The manufacturing impact of technology devices isn’t going to change overnight. With such a huge market, I wonder if it would take pressure from consumers to make any kind of difference. I certainly would consider other environmentally friendly options if they become available.
As for running costs, we have two PS4s at home. I play for a few hours a week, and my eldest son probably plays for longer, but my wife and I encourage him to take breaks. We have a smart meter at home where we can monitor just how much energy we are using, and we always try to reduce our demand for energy, but it’s not easy. Especially during the darker months of the year where we don’t really go out that often.
Can we ever get to a point where we can balance the demands for technology so that they don’t impact on the environment?
Thursday December 5, 2019