Is Netflix streaming greener?

Last month, TreeHugger ran an article asking if Netflix streaming is greener than DVD-by-mail. The conclusion that the author presented is that DVD-by-mail is the greener option. I don’t necessarily disagree with the conclusion, but I have serious issues with the path to get there. Perhaps I’m judging it too harshly — it is, after all, a web article, not a scientific paper. It may be too much to ask for rigor in entertainment (Randall Munroe would agree, and I’m certainly guilty of hand-waving at times), but if we’re going to pretend to answer the question definitively, let’s put some effort into it.

The most obvious problem with the article is that “greener” is never defined. The author focuses on CO2 emissions, so I guess that’s the measure being used. While CO2 is valid, it’s hardly the only consideration in determining the environmental impact of Netflix. The DVDs must be manufactured and the shipping envelopes don’t get reused. For streaming, the hardware needs to be manufactured. These all require resources, both renewable and non-renewable. Even the CO2 emissions aren’t created equal if one considers the cost of extracting the oil needed to power the vehicles and the coal used to power the datacenters.

In “calculating” the CO2 output of streaming a Netflix movie, the author uses an entirely different kind of service and says that Netflix must generate more CO2 than that. That’s quite possible, but where’s the proof? In fact, a previous post by the same author says “[a]n even more efficient option is on-demand movies on cable, or movie downloading.” I’m now confused. Is streaming more efficient or is it a greater contributor to anthropogenic CO2 production?

It’s interesting and thought-provoking to ask if Netflix (or other similar services) is less-impactful in streaming or physical form. The article did a great service asking the question, but an incredible disservice in answering it. The answer is more complicated than a few quick calculations. It may prove that DVD-by-mail really is the “greener” option. I don’t know, but neither does Pablo Paster.

3 thoughts on “Is Netflix streaming greener?

  1. The most glaring oversight I saw (as we discussed offline) was the fact that they didn’t seem to take into account the processing overhead of movies by mail. He seemed to do a good job of trying to estimate the CO2 emissions from the delivery trucks, but what about all of the envelopes Netflix goes through? Or the amount of data they have to process? Or the operating footprint of their 42 distribution centers? I can guarantee those cause some sort of emissions.

    It’s easy to make the results look as pretty as we want if we just leave data out.

  2. I think it is an interesting discussion. Overall I feel as if this is like picking up pennies in the overall picture. If choosing to watch streaming vs DVD by mail is a person’s way to save the world, then the world is doomed. Besides choosing your viewing options is not about MARGINAL improvement in greenhouse emissions, it is about entertainment. If a person really cared, they would spend that time picking up trash on the side of the road or planting trees.

    Issues that need to be considered:
    – the post office is already making these trips and so there is very little added?
    – does the behavior of streaming cause people to consume more movies and therefore, energy?
    – does the dvd player consume more energy than the device used to stream?
    – What about the time spent adding to your Netflix list, which is avoided due to streaming?
    – The possibility (although slim) of sharing a DVD with a friend and therefore saving the extra delivery cost AND the streaming, but incurring energy usage.
    – Ability to stream more than one movie at a time vs. DVD can only be watched on one device at a time
    – all that goes into producing a DVD that will eventually get damaged or become obsolete.
    – the free advertising that the DVD mailing containers provide reducing the need for other methods (or providing more incentive to create more carbon emissions, depending on perspective)

    Just some thoughts.

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys. I agree that the calculation of the “greenness” is completely not the point of deciding one’s Netflix option. Thanks for pointing out more issues on how difficult such calculations really are. Now that we’ve done this, I’m sure no one will ever write a post like the one on TreeHugger again. 🙂

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