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.