Guest Op/Ed: Toxics, Electronics and Why Consoles Matter

Here at Greenpeace we're no strangers to controversy.

Sparking it is part of the reason we exist: sometimes it's the only way to raise an issue up in the public dialogue to a point where a discussion is had, a decision gets made, and action taken.

And that's what our work on games consoles is all about: getting something done about the problem of electronic waste.

Our recent videos here on Kotaku stirred up a variety of passionate responses.

I'd like to clear up a few misunderstandings about the toxic substances in electronics and consoles in particular. Pressuring Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft to remove toxic chemicals is just part of our campaign for greener electronics.

Greenpeace first started its Greener Electronics campaign in 2005 to address massive increases in the dumping of toxic electronic waste, or "e-waste", particularly in developing countries. We were seeing mountains of old electronics piling up. Ground water in parts of China was so polluted by toxic chemicals that it was undrinkable. Children in Ghana, Pakistan, and India were enveloped in acrid fumes every day from burning the PVC insulation off wires to recover copper. This is the ugly reality behind the huge growth in our use and disposal of more and more computers, phones, and gadgets.

In August 2006 we launched our Guide to Greener Electronics covering the policies and practice of leading mobile phone and PC makers on toxic chemicals and global recycling. Mobile phones and PC are the biggest contributors to the massive growth in e-waste but as the campaign progressed it was clear we needed to expand the focus of the Guide. In November 2007 we added TV makers and console makers to the Guide.

We added Nintendo and Microsoft (Sony were already featured) because of the explosive growth in console sales, making it one of the biggest growth areas in consumer electronics.

We focus on toxics elimination and global recycling as two vital areas to help tackle e-waste. Removing the most hazardous substances from electronics first makes them safer and cheaper to recycle responsibly. If old electronics are still dumped, less toxics equals less pollution.

Requiring global electronics firms to provide free take back and recycling for all their products has two major benefits. It makes it much easier and convenient for everyone to ensure their old electronics are recycled responsibly. Plus if companies who make products are also made responsible for them at the end of life they have a big incentive to make them more durable, reduce hazardous substances, and design for efficient recycling.

These principles apply to all electronics from mobiles to TVs, consoles to computers. Phasing out hazardous substances is not easy or quick to do. As a simple rule of thumb, the smaller and simpler the device the easier it is to remove toxic PVC plastic and Brominated Flame Retardants. Removing these substances from consoles is a challenge for companies but not an impossible task. The most progressive electronics companies committed to remove these toxics back in 2006 or 2007 with target dates of 2009 and 2010. Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Apple are definitely leading on toxics elimination. Progress from the biggest PC makers is mixed; Acer remains committed to completing a phase-out by end of this year, while Dell, Lenovo and HP have postponed their phase-outs.

If progress from other sectors has been mixed, console makers haven't even left the starting blocks. While Sony has a commitment to remove these chemicals from mobile devices by 2010, and has made progress with models like the Vaio laptop, Sony refuses to make any commitment for the PlayStation. Microsoft has a commitment but only by 2010. Nintendo has no set date to remove PVC.

Alternatives do exist

We are not asking for the impossible - alternatives to these substances do exist and are available. Apple has proved it's possible by removing BFRs and virtually completing PVC phase out while reducing the price of new models.

While many progressive companies in the electronics industry have taken up the challenge to make greener electronics that are free of the worst toxics, more recyclable and energy efficient, there's also been plenty of criticism thrown in our direction.

Here are my answers to several of the most common critiques related directly to consoles.

I often see criticism that we are not promoting solutions or alternatives, only problems. For me there are several parts to this. On eliminating toxics our expertise is on raising the issue, the solutions are best developed by the companies and the product designers, engineers and chemists backed by massive R&D budgets. Only companies can find the best solutions for their products. This is something companies need to invest in significantly. Pressure from their customers is vital to raise the issue of toxics elimination up on the ladder of corporate priorities. If enough gamers request consoles without the worst toxic chemicals, the manufacturers will move. Without that demand, nothing happens. In this sense every one of us reading this can be part of the solution.

Many comments highlight the fact that consoles are rarely thrown out and are in high demand on the second hand market. Undoubtedly this is true for many places, but with monthly combined sales of consoles in the millions and historical combined sales in the hundreds of millions there must be a significant number of consoles that have or will find their way on to the global e-waste pile eventually. It's very difficult to find any comprehensive global figures on amounts and exact consistency of e-waste, as the trade is illegal in many countries. However, old electronics containing toxic chemicals are often dumped in developing countries because that's the cheapest option.

Some claim we take money to attack other companies. Actually, no — we don't. Part of what makes Greenpeace different from many other environmental groups is that we simply don't accept corporate or government funding as a matter of principle. Our independence means we're free to bite any corporate hand we need to, without fear of upsetting a funder. We actually screen donations, and send back checks that don't come from individual donors.

Often stories like to portray our campaign as Greenpeace attacking a specific company. Yes, we do single out companies, either because they're a perfect example of a problem, or because they're the worst performer, or because they have the potential to lead the industry in a new direction if they change. The name of the game is to get an issue onto people's radar, and to build public pressure for change. You can call it Machiavellian, but that formula is what has given us a four decade track record of success. Nations no longer dump radioactive waste in the ocean, because we made it an issue. Antarctica is off limits to oil and gas exploration, because we made it an issue. Commercial whaling has been banned, because we made it an issue. We have no permanent allies, no permanent enemies. Our sole allegiance is to solving environmental problems.

Use your power

The people eeking out a living by scavenging smoldering mountains of our castaway technology can't comment here on Kotaku. But their voice matters greatly in this debate. There's no reason our gaming needs to be poisoning them. You — the gaming community — hold the power to change the way consoles are made. How can we hold that power, and not use it, when it's a matter of life and death?

Tom Dowdall coordinates Greenpeace's campaign for Greener Electronics.