Sony’s PlayStation 4 is designed to feel impenetrable. The machine — jet black, almost brutalist in shape — conceals its function to the untrained eye. Power on and disk eject buttons, as well as the actual disk drive, are almost invisible. It’s as if Sony hopes to imbue the object with a sense of mystery and awe. The PlayStation 2 played with similar emotions at the turn of the millennium, sitting bolt upright like the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the most recent PlayStation looks more like the headquarters of a galactic government. Its secrets, though, couldn’t be more terrestrial, originating deep within Earth’s crust and at the hands of workers across the globe. Far from being detached from the environment, the PlayStation 4 is an object hewn from its materials and inhabitants.
As the climate crisis chastens and public awareness grows, environmental concerns have finally made their way to the video game industry. Sony recently signed up to the United Nations-backed initiative Playing for the Planet, while it’s broader “Road to Zero” initiative aims to “achieve a zero environmental footprint by the year 2050,” including goals to curb climate change, conserve resources, and promote biodiversity. But precisely how this squares with the company’s ongoing aim to sell hardware with short-term lives (the PlayStation 5 releases next year, effectively making its predecessor obsolete) remains to be seen.
In an effort to explore both the environmental and human impacts of Sony’s current video game console, I decided to take one apart. Under its plastic hood, I discovered a machine that spans continents and deep time, touches thousands of lives (for better and worse), and leaves an indelible, measurable stain on Earth and its atmosphere.
On October 29th, 2019, the University of Cambridge welcomed me into its engineering department’s vast, utilitarian building, which is noticeably less sacral-looking than the institution’s other more famous sites. I met with Claire Barlow, a specialist in sustainability, materials, and figuring out what happens to leviathan wind turbine blades at the end of their lives. She whisked me through the building’s labyrinth-like corridors, past students in lectures and researchers with goggles, to a subterranean lab decorated with innumerable hazard signs. Exposed pipes crisscrossed the walls while strange machines whirred in the background. Just behind us, a giant industrial magnet powered up with warning signs dotted about its perimeter so we wouldn’t scramble our phones. Before long, John Durrell, a specialist in superconductor engineering (who took apart more machines as a teenager than he can remember), arrived with a set of tools in his hands and a glint in his eye.
We unpacked the machine first. An outer box that beamed with flashy images, marketing copy, and densely packed small print took a fiddly few moments to remove. This external layer of card is heavily processed, which means it has a high carbon and environmental footprint, but it’s still recyclable, Barlow told me. Next came more cardboard — probably protective, less processed — before we got to the molded card holding the PS4 firmly in place. All of these materials should find another life as recycled cardboard, provided they’re processed correctly.
We moved on to the console itself, and Durrell popped its top lid off with ease. This piece of plastic — black, ever so slightly dappled, with a glossy PlayStation logo positioned prominently in its center — is made from acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which is the same cheap, hard-wearing material from which Lego blocks are made. An origin is engraved into the plastic: the Casetek Computer factory in Suzhou, a city with over 10 million inhabitants, which is referred to as the “Venice of China.” Because the ABS is labeled (along with most of the other materials within the console), it means it has a better-than-normal chance of being recycled, which falls in line with Sony’s recycling policy. Another company initiative aims to reduce virgin plastic in its products by 10 percent in 2020. But in 2018, virgin plastic used per product was actually up 2.4 percent from its 2013 figure.
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.
Sony’s ABS, which pumps approximately 1.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent into the atmosphere for every PlayStation 4 manufactured, might have originated from China as part of the country’s expanding petrochemicals industry. But huge reserves can also be found in Venezuela, Canada, and a host of Middle Eastern countries. Once the oil has actually been mined, a complex process involving transport, refinery, and the plastic manufacturing takes place. “It’s energy-intensive,” Barlow soberly told me in the lab, “from top to bottom.”
“It’s energy-intensive, from top to bottom.”
Deeper inside the PlayStation 4, we came across a lot of steel, approximately 736 grams. Around 70 to 90 percent of steel gets recycled internationally, during which old parts are melted down, refined, and turned into new steel. This is what Barlow describes as “genuine recycling.” But because steel demand continues to rise, which means creating the metal alloy from ore, the proportion of recycled material in new steel sits at around 35 percent. In China, where the PlayStation 4 is made, it’s even less, clocking in at 20 percent. Still, from Sony’s point of view, the metal is cheap and structurally stable.
The economic efficiency with which the PlayStation 4 has been designed and subsequently manufactured is one of the machine’s most striking elements. We peered into the complex cogs of the Blu-ray drive, which is mostly made from a plastic called polyoxymethylene (POM) and is cheaper than hardier nylon plastic. The heatsink is made from aluminum, most likely because it’s a more cost-effective material than copper. The plastic ABS casing would have been created using injection molding, a process that results in very little waste material. Again, it’s cheaper for Sony and a little bit better for the environment, albeit relatively so.
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.
Gold and tin are classified as “conflict minerals” by US legislation, a term that refers to resources originating from Congo and its neighboring countries. This region has faced ongoing violence for the past 30 years, funded in part, and amid many other complex factors, by its colossal mineral wealth, which is estimated at $24 trillion. Since 2010, publicly listed US companies have been required to check their supply chains for such minerals, their origins, and any risks associated with their extraction. We can’t be sure whether any of the tin or gold in the PlayStation 4 originated from this African region because Sony doesn’t publish its supply chain — unlike, say, Apple — but there’s cause for concern.
Earlier this year, Gamesindustry.biz combed Sony’s corporate documents to reveal 53 smelters or refiners (the companies that process metals, sometimes at the site of extraction) failing to meet the standards set by the Responsible Minerals Assurance Process, including sourcing practices. It’s feasible that some of these 53 smelters or refiners exist within what’s called a “covered country” (e.g., Congo and its adjoining countries), which means their mines could be, too. Working conditions at such mines are often pitiful, sometimes involving violence and child labor, and all for mercilessly little pay. It’s quite possible that the tin-based solder in your PlayStation 4, which is the glue holding its vital computerized parts together, originated from such deep exploitation.
After a while, Durrell wrestled the AMD microchip, an integrated CPU and GPU, away from the circuit board using a heat gun and pair of pliers. This is the component that breathes Frankenstein-like life into the machine’s inanimate assembly of earthly materials. He held it up, and we all squinted at the flattened forest green square with plastic hairs fraying at its edges. “You miniaturize the product, and you maximize your carbon footprint,” Barlow said. “Even though it’s very little material, the processing energy is absolutely huge, and the end of life is almost impossible. It’s basically single-use.”
Under the microscope, I could see just how intricate the chip is, geometric lines multiplying in every direction like a Japanese cityscape. For a split-second, I was overwhelmed by its vastness, experiencing what some people might describe as “technological sublime.” It feels like vertigo. Away from the microscope and firmly back in the real world, I scheduled a call with California-based microchip expert Sarah Boyd.
The first point to bear in mind — because there are over 100 million PlayStation 4s out there, and AMD also produces chips like this for Microsoft’s own Xbox One console — is the scale at which these tiny objects are being produced. Such immense numbers become even more mind-boggling when you consider not only the intricacy of the actual manufacturing process but the conditions under which these microchips are made. Boyd told me it takes approximately 400 process steps to create chips like this in sparkling clean rooms inhabited by humans wearing iconic bunny suits and futuristic-looking robots.
Why do microchips demand such pristine manufacturing conditions? It’s essentially so that no unwanted particles find their way into the microscopic components. Boyd described Inception-like layers of rooms in cavernous facilities, each more filtered than the last, until you reach a final chemically scrubbed clean room. Ultra-pure water, air, argon, and nitrogen are all ferried around arrays of tubes and pipes, which, at times, resemble the complexity of an actual organism. A clean room’s floor is often actually a grate, under which a “sub-fab” lies where some of these tubes lead to equipment that sucks in lots of nasty chemicals and transforms them into less nasty chemicals. Such intensive air filtration and purifying procedures require almost cataclysmic amounts of electricity, which comes with its own carbon cost.
There is a darker, more direct way in which microchip manufacturing impacts humans and the climate, Boyd explained. Perfluorocarbons, potent greenhouse gases, are key to the manufacturing process. Inside the clean room equipment, high-energy plasma is used to break these perfluorocarbon gases apart, which subsequently releases highly corrosive fluorine. One example is nitrogen trifluoride, a greenhouse gas that is 16,100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat. Needless to say, this spells bad news if the chemical does leak into Earth’s atmosphere. Worse yet is the effect such gases can have on the immediate surroundings if, for any reason, disposal systems within the manufacturing facility don’t function correctly.
Boyd described one incident in Asia where highly toxic fluorines escaped into the factory parking lot, and layers of employees’ windscreens started to literally disappear. “You can’t even imagine what’s happening to the people exposed to it directly in the air outside,” she said.
A different kind of terror lurks in the Chinese factories that actually assemble these machines. On the back of the PlayStation 4 we deconstructed in Cambridge, it simply read: “Made in China.” But other machines carry different text. At home, my console states: “Made in China MTK.” When I asked a friend to look at his PS4, he sent a grainy photo showing the text “Made in China FOX.”
MTK and FOX refer to two giant contract manufacturers, Maintek and Foxconn. Remember the top lid that Durrell popped off so easily? That was made by Casetek, which, alongside Maintek, is part of Pegatron, a giant corporation that creates consumer electronics, including the iPhone. You can find Maintek’s factory at the same address as Casetek in Suzhou, China. No. 233, Jinfeng Road is a monumental site employing up to 80,000 workers in peak season. In 2014, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, a non-government organization based in Hong Kong, detailed abhorrent conditions there, including punishing work spells that can last for 10 weeks at a time, illegal charges for health checks, little protective equipment, and excessive performance-related fines.
“This really affects the workers as well.”
Conditions are just as bad for workers at Foxconn, which, over the past decade, has found itself at the heart of a string of scandals. In 2010, 15 people committed suicide at the so-called “Foxconn City” in Shenzhen, while poor conditions and unpaid student labor have all made headlines. In September 2019, China Labor Watch, another non-governmental organization, reported ongoing worker rights violations at Foxconn. On a phone call, I asked Child Labor Watch program officer Elaine Lu how she would characterize these working conditions.
“They’re pretty terrible and dire,” she said. “If you think about it, just for a worker to be on a production line doing the same thing is very monotonous work, with at least a hundred overtime hours a month. And then most of them live in dorms so their life is very centered around work and the facility itself. Not having the proper protections, not living in great conditions, this really affects the workers as well.”
A few days later, Barlow emailed me the results of her and Durrell’s findings. The equivalent of 89 kilograms of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere with the production and transportation of every PlayStation 4. I asked her if that was broadly in line with what she was expecting. “Yes,” she said simply. Certainly, the figure compares with other consumer electronic devices of its size and complexity, like a laptop. What if we multiply that number by 100 million, the number of consoles Sony has sold to date, would that be fair? “Yep,” she said again. Now we arrive at a more imposing number, one that feels like it captures the machine’s multitudes: the extraction and production of its raw materials, the global transportation of components, and the gigantic factories it’s assembled within. Since the PlayStation 4’s release in 2013, approximately 8.9 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide have been generated and subsequently released into the atmosphere. That’s more than all of Jamaica’s emissions in 2017. All for one little video game console.
What the figure doesn’t include is the energy consumed during the console’s use, so I purchased a plug-in energy monitor to test my own PlayStation 4. Over the course of an hour, Hideo Kojima’s new hiking simulator Death Stranding ate up 75 watts of electricity. If we estimate that average usage equates to roughly one hour each day, then a single player might generate 13.7 kilograms worth of carbon emissions throughout the year. If the player has owned their PlayStation 4 for the whole six years of its life to date, that’s 82.2 kilograms of carbon emissions, which is not far off the carbon footprint of the machine itself. Of course, if your electricity supplier is using a renewable energy source, then this point is null and void. But for the majority of us, our electricity will come from natural gas. (Only 17 percent of US electricity was renewably sourced in 2018.)
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.
The numbers quickly rack up to an almost dizzying degree
However forcefully Sony makes the case, the PlayStation 4 is not special. As Durrell said, the console is an “elegant piece of equipment,” but it’s also “much of a muchness” with other consumer electronics. When I asked Barlow how she might characterize the carbon footprint of consumer electronics, she offered just one word: “big.” Consider all of the other devices in the world, each with broadly similar carbon footprints using the same compressed carbon and shards of minerals formed over many millions of years. Workers might have been paid a pittance to extract, manufacture, and assemble those machines, too, with comparable industrial processes similarly impacting local environments. The numbers quickly rack up to an almost dizzying degree.
What was also remarkable about deconstructing the console was how quickly it transformed from a single object into an assembly of diffuse materials, each with their own histories, protagonists, and processes. As I think back to the cadaverous heap of metal, plastic, and electronics on the lab table in Cambridge University, it occurs to me that the PlayStation 4 has the most dazzling and problematic parts of global capitalism purring in unison. It is an exquisite, leanly designed machine pulsing with the exploitation of Earth and its people. I think lots of us know this, at least on some level, but our collective thirst for these carbon-hungry technologies remains unquenchable. Whether the planet can sustain such consumption is one question, but the ongoing human cost is another one entirely. For now, that’s the reality we must confront each time we boot up the jet black machine and plug ourselves back into the matrix.