Making Board Games Is Bad For The Environment – Playing Them Isn’t

emily mini profile pic By Emily

With the popularity of board games increasing and thousands of new ones being manufactured each year, it got me wondering if board games are bad for the environment.

Are board games bad for the environment? The initial manufacturing of board games and the shipping of them around the world isn’t good for the environment. However, board games can be reused over and over again and playing a board game has a very low carbon footprint.


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a lake in the Peak District
A lake in the Peak District, England

There are a lot of materials and some chemicals which go into the manufacturing of board games. But one of the largest environmental impacts is shipping them all over the world.

While you can’t do much about the manufacturing and shipping, there are ways you can be more environmentally friendly when board gaming.

Making and recycling board games

There are many different pieces that could be included in a board game. I wrote about all the different types of board game pieces in another article.

Taking raw materials to create a board game takes a lot of energy which mostly comes from fossil fuels and creates pollution.

The carbon footprint of making the board game pieces can be lower if they are made from recycled materials. It also helps if the pieces can be recycled at some point in the future.

Looking at what board game pieces are made from, it’s clear that some of them are more environmentally friendly than others.

Wood

Meeples, cubes and pawns are often made from wood. They can be made from sustainably sourced wood and wood is an organic biodegradable material.

Plastic

Specially moulded miniatures or game pieces are often made from plastic. This plastic could be from recycled plastic. The main issue is if you want to recycle plastic pieces yourself. Pieces don’t come with a plastic stamp on them telling you if they can be recycled or what type of plastic they are. So even if you want to recycle them, you can’t.

Cardboard

Cardboard made from recycled material is really common so a lot of boxes and tokens are made from recycled cardboard. It’s also a biodegradable material so cardboard boxes and pieces can be recycled with your usual paper and card recycling.

Metal

Recycled metal is a reasonably common material. Again the problem comes with recycling metal components. Chances are, they are some kind of metal allow but without a recycling symbol printed on the pieces, there’s not a lot you can do.

Painting, glueing and coating the pieces

board game pieces
Board game pieces

A huge part of the immersive gaming experience of modern board games is the beautiful artwork and customized cards, pawns and boards.

Making them so beautiful uses a lot of chemicals. Then when they are printed, dyed or painted, they need protecting with a coating so that playing with them doesn’t wear the paint off.

These coatings are varnishes or laminates that are applied over the top of the pieces.

Because board games class as toys and games, the coatings used are non-toxic. But they still put chemicals into the world.

With the board game boards, manufacturers use glue to stick the printed board design and the paper wrap to the cardboard. I learnt about this during my research into what board game boards are made of.

Glue is also used in board game boxes. The corners are stuck together with glue to give the box stability.

Packaging and shipping

After the game has been made, it’s packed neatly into the box. Boxes usually have a cardboard insert that the game pieces sit in but occasionally it’s a plastic one.

I don’t like it when cards come in a single-use plastic wrapper. More and more often games come with their components in zip lock baggies. This a great improvement! They can be re-used when packing the game away.

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The worst offender of all is shrink wrap around the game box! It makes sure the box can’t fall open and scatter pieces everywhere during transit, stops wandering hands from stealing pieces in local game stores, and keeps the game shiny and scratch-free for its future owners.

But it is so wasteful and can’t be recycled where I live. It goes straight into landfill.

Biodegradable plastic wrap would be a better option. But how would you know it was biodegradable when buying a game, and would it affect your decision to buy or not buy it?

Some manufacturers are offering paper-based stickers to seal boxes instead, although I’ve only seen them used on small games so far. Perhaps the stickers could go around the entire outside edge where the outer and inner boxes meet to provide more support for heavier games.

A huge contributor to a board game’s environmental impact is the shipping.

Board games are often made in China and shipped on massive freighters to other countries around the world. Then they are transported even further by road, train or plane to retailers and your home.

Playing board games has a low environmental impact

Flick em up board game
Flick ‘Em Up board game

The great thing about a board game is that after it’s been created it can be used over and over again. It’s one of the reasons I love board games. In this article I wrote about why board games are great value for money.

When you are actually playing a board game, it has very little environmental impact at all. They don’t use any power or generate any waste.

If you compare playing a board game to doing another leisure activity they look even better. Board games don’t involve eating out, travelling long distances to go to a specific location to play them, or buying lots of accessories, special clothes or equipment.

There’s only the light and heat which would be on anyway if it’s dark and cold, and maybe the snacks during gameplay. Speaking of snacks, I came up with a list of ideas for board gaming snacks that leave no mess on your games.

Upgrades can be bad for the environment

While a board game may not have many components, board game upgrades are really popular.

Plastic baggies are great for organizing game components, and plastic card sleeves help protect the cards from wear.

Some card sleeves are made from corn starch plastic which is recyclable. The problem is, not many places actually recycle it. My local area doesn’t.

lastic card sleeves for Magic: The Gathering
Plastic card sleeves for Magic: The Gathering

If a plastic card sleeve makes a card last longer, is that better for the environment than needing to replace it with a new one?

Not all upgrades are bad for the environment though. Board game inserts are usually made from laser cut wood from sustainable forests. And the colour changing LED bulb I have above my board gaming table is more energy efficient than the old bulb I had.

Just like the LED bulb, some board game upgrades can be used across more than one game. I listed my favourites in an article on board game upgrades.

How to reduce your environmental impact as a board gamer

You can’t do much about the environmental impact a board game has had before it reaches you. But you can reduce the impact you have with your board gaming hobby.

Here are 12 ideas.

  1. Use small cloth drawstring bags for your components instead of zip lock bags. You could make your own that are the perfect size and shape for each game box and in fabrics that match the theme of each game.
  2. Use a wooden storage game insert.
  3. Make origami storage boxes from a brightly coloured card like this person on BoardGameGeek.
  4. Reuse all your components in making new games, or upcycling them in craft projects.
  5. If a game has missing pieces, order replacement parts instead of replacing the whole game.
  6. Donate your old board games or sell them on rather than throwing them away. See this post for ideas on where to donate old board games.
  7. Buy pre-owned game. They won’t have the shrink wrap, you save another one from being manufactured or ending up in landfill, and if you buy them locally, the shipping impact is minimal.
  8. Carefully consider whether a legacy game is worth it. Because a legacy board game is designed to be used once or has a limit on the number of times you can play it, it limits its life.
  9. Actually play your games! Don’t just collect them and leave them sitting pretty on a shelf.
  10. Buy fewer games. You don’t need to collect loads of games. If someone else in your friendship group has a copy – you don’t need it too.  
  11. Play some print and play games.
  12. Eat snacks and have drinks during your game sessions that have minimal packaging and are locally sourced.

A board game about pollution

The board game CO2 Second Chance raises awareness of environmental issues. Interestingly all the game pieces are made from cardboard or wood so it doesn’t include any plastic components.

In CO2 Second Chance, you take on the role of a CEO of a power company. The earth is heavily polluted but the demand for energy is going up. You need to create the clean, green energy plants that the government wants.

To do that, you need money, expertise and resources. You can share and learn from other countries at international environmental summits. If pollution isn’t stopped – everyone loses the game.

CO2 Second Chance can be played as an all player co-op where everyone works together to beat the game. Or it can be played competitively where you compete to save the world and be the company with the best reputation. Take a closer look at CO2 Second Chance on Amazon.

Conclusion – making board games is bad for the environment, playing them isn’t

The manufacturing of a board game is not environmentally friendly. It uses power, raw materials and chemicals just like most manufactured products. Because board games are usually made in one country and shipped around the world, it increases their environmental impact further.

The good news – when a board game is played it generates no waste at all. Plus, while the players are playing the board game they aren’t involved in less environmentally activities!

You could just not buy any board games at all and play online instead. If you’re in a country with renewable energy sources that could be quite a good option with low environmental impact. Here are the best sites I’ve found for playing board games online.

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Emily
Hi, I’m Emily, the tabletop gamer behind My Kind of Meeple. If this article helped you, I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.

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