Ask Pablo: Is Nexflix Streaming Greener? The Answer May Surprise You


Image credit: Roscoe Ellis, used under Creative Commons license.
Dear Pablo: Since Netflix is raising rates it got me thinking about choosing between streaming and receiving DVD's in the mail. Which is better from an environmental perspective. Streaming a movie or having the DVD sent to me?

Netflix announced its new price structure last week, decoupling postal delivery service plans ($11.99 unlimited, 2 films at a time) and online streaming service plans ($7.99). In past articles I have been asked "is it better to use a mail-order service or to drive to the store?", "what is the environmental impact of the internet?", and "what was the impact of Netflix's first billion DVDs?" To answer this question I will combine these different questions to help you choose the best environmental option.Of course there are several other options for watching films and television shows online. Amazon offers unlimited online viewing of 6,000 films and television shows for $79 per year and you can download television episodes and films from iTunes.

What Is The Impact of Home Delivery of DVDs?

In Ask Pablo: Is Netflix Saving The World? I calculated that the emissions from mailing Netflix's first billion DVDs was 320 metric tons of CO2-equivalents, or 0.32 grams per disk. As with any of the options, your impact will vary depending on how many films you consume. In the case of home delivery there is an additional consideration for your distance from the closest Netflix warehouse. For my calculation the distance was based on their average member.

Another option for enjoying films is to pick them up from your local video rental store or a supermarket DVD vending machine such as RedBox. But in this case, as discussed in Ask Pablo: Is Netflix Saving The World?, the impact of driving to the store and back is 3.5 kg of CO2. If you drive to the store only to get a film and you only get one film at a time then this impact will be multiplied by the number of films you view.

What Is The Impact Of Watching Films Online?

With today's web-enabled televisions we can assume that you will use your television to watch DVDs and watch films online. On the other hand, we could also assume that you watch both on your laptop. Either way, the environmental impact of watching DVDs and watching films online is going to be the same as far as your direct energy use is concerned. Where online viewing differs is in the servers that provide the content and operate the internet that delivers it to your home.

In Ask Pablo: What Is The Environmental Impact Of The Internet? I mentioned that a Google search results in 1-10 grams of greenhouse gas emissions and that the average computer results in 40-80 grams of greenhouse gas emissions. Netflix doesn't publish the emissions per hour of film from its servers but it is probably higher than the average computer. Even if I am wrong, it is certainly much more than the 0.32 gram emissions from delivery via mail.

Which Netflix service option is best for the environment

Based on my calculations, mail-order delivery of DVD's has a lower environmental impact watching films online, and much lower than driving to the store to get a DVD. Environmentally then, watching mail-order films is the best option for the environmentally concerned movie watcher. Of course, hard-core TreeHuggers will tell you that the most environmental, and cheapest, option is to forgo films altogether and get outside. Now that you are informed, you are can make your own decision.

Pablo Päster is a weekly columnist for TreeHugger.com and Principal Environmental Consultant at Hara Software. Send your questions to Pablo(at)TreeHugger.com or submit the via this form and connect to his RSS feed.
More TreeHugger Articles On Netflix:
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Netflix To Bring Downloadable Movies Straight To Your TV?
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Tags: Carbon Emissions