Is your Netflix queue destroying the environment?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Dec. 29 2008 6:43 AM

Video Stores vs. Online Rentals

Is your Netflix queue destroying the environment?

In August, the Green Lantern curled up in front of his DVD player and wondered: Is it more environmentally friendly to rent movies from a video store or an online service like Netflix? The piece is reprinted below.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

My family just got Netflix, and the first DVD we rented was An Inconvenient Truth (really). As we watched the film, I started getting pangs of regret: The movie was surely sitting on the shelf at my local video store, and here we were getting it delivered from hundreds of miles away. Is my Netflix queue destroying the environment?

You can rest your conscience: Renting a DVDby mail is probably a greener choice than going to your local video store. To understand why, let's chart the journey a DVD takes before it arrives in your living room.

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Up until the last few miles, your disc's trip is pretty similar no matter how you get it. A Netflix DVD is initially delivered to the company's main distribution center in Sunnyvale, Calif., and then sent by truck with thousands of other discs to one of 53 regional distribution centers across the country. From there it's sent as part of a daily delivery to a nearby U.S. Postal Service hub, and regular mail carriers take over. Meanwhile, a DVD destined for a brick-and-mortar Blockbuster store first goes to the company's McKinney, Texas, facility, where it's repackaged into a Blockbuster-sanctioned plastic case and trucked to your local store. (Blockbuster now offers a rent-by-mail service as well.)

The two methods of renting a DVD are only substantively different at the very end, when the disc travels to your doorstep. The Netflix DVD may be transported back and forth over much greater distances than the one from the local video store. But it's part of a much larger delivery in the back of a mail truck—and that reduces its environmental impact. (By the same reasoning, a shipment of lamb that comes halfway around the world on a massive boat may be more energy-efficient than a smaller shipment from somewhere nearby.)

The green marketing gurus at Netflix go even further, arguing that the mail is going to be delivered to your house anyway, so the environmental cost of delivering one of their DVDs is effectively zero. (They use this theory to arrive at an enormous estimate for the number of gallons of gas saved by delivering DVDs through the U.S. Postal Service.) Here, the Green Lantern feels Netflix may be overplaying its hand just a little: Eventually, the addition of new mail into the system adds up, requiring more trucks, greater strain on the mail-sorting system, and so on. Since we can't identify the impact of one extra piece of mail, we're better off averaging the cost of delivering the mail over each item. By that logic, the environmental cost of a Netflix delivery is still extremely small, albeit not quite zero.

Indeed, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, even just a two-mile drive to the video store will consume a few hundred times more energy than the Netflix delivery from a distribution center 200 miles away. The authors run through calculations for a consumer in Ann Arbor, Mich., and conclude that renting three DVDs online consumes about 33 percent less energy and emits 40 percent less CO2 than picking up those same movies at the traditional video store.

Still, it turns out that transportation accounts for only a small amount of the energy it takes to make and deliver a DVD. In fact, if the Journal of Industrial Ecology study is right, 30 minutes spent reordering your queue—in a well-lit, climate-controlled room with the computer running—will use far more energy than the actual Netflix delivery and about as much energy as it would take to drive your hybrid to a store a half-mile away.

Packaging accounts for another chunk of the difference between renting online or from the video store. It takes a significant amount of energy to make the lockable polypropylene case that you might get at a video store—by the Journal of Industrial Ecology estimate, about as much as you'd need to drive to and from the mall. And compared with a mail-order Tyvek sleeve, a video-store case takes up more space when it's shipped from the main distribution center.

A warning, though: Just because renting by mail wins here doesn't mean that e-commerce is always a greener option. A 2002 study co-authored by a group of U.S. and Japanese researchers concluded that buying a book from an online retailer often required more energy than getting one in person. That's partly because many book shipments are made by air and partly because sending books by UPS and FedEx can require extra stops by couriers. (Bookstores lose much of their advantage if they don't manage their inventories well—traditionally, retailers return a sizable chunk of their stock to the publisher when it doesn't get sold.) So remember: It's not just how far something travels that matters. It's the route it takes to get there.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.