AskPablo: Is Netflix saving the world?

netflix.gifCould it be true? Is Netflix helping to solve the global climate catastrophe? This weekend Netflix reached an impressive milestone; one billion DVDs sent. Could the resulting reduction in personal vehicle trips to the video rental store make a difference in the battle against climate change? Well, read on…
A DVD weighs about 16g with its mailing sleeve. Netflix has 42 facilities placed strategically around the country so that greater then 90% of their customers are within one shipping day, probably averaging around 200 km (125 miles) from facility to customer (if anyone from Netflix reads this and has better data, please let me know…). Since commercial vehicle/truck emissions are often calculated in g/tkm (grams of CO2 per tons x kilometer) we need to determine the tons shipped since they first began shipping DVDs. One billion DVDs would weigh about 16 Billion grams (16,000 tons). Multiply this by 200 km average shipping distance and you get 3,200,000 tkm.


The semi trucks used to transport mail probably get around 6.1 mpg (2.6 km/l) and can carry up to 45,000 pounds (20,412 kg). Over 200 km the truck would use 77 liters of diesel fuel, emitting 232 kg of CO2 (for a derivation of this see “AskPablo: The Tailpipe Mystery”). In this case we are looking at 232 kg of CO2 emissions and 4082.4 tkm (20.412 t x 200 km), or 56.7 g/tkm. The Wuppertal Institute’s MIPS Data Tables actually put the figure at 102.00 g/tkm, but that is for an “8 t articulated lorry” in Europe. Since the mail is also transported by local postal vehicles we can assume that a number around 100 g/tkm is pretty close.
So the total emissions from sending one billion DVDs to its customers is 320 tons (3,200,000 tkm x 100 g/tkm). Keeping in mind that those DVDs are also returned to the same facility we need to double that result to 640 tons of CO2 emissions. If Netflix wanted to offset this amount, which I hope they will, they could do it for around $4500 with DriveNeutral or $8448 with Native Energy.
To put this result into perspective, let’s see what the alternative looks like. Let’s say that the average drive to your local video rental store is 5 km (3 miles) and that the average vehicle gets around 20 mpg (0.118 l/km), so that every trip to the video rental store uses 0.588 liters of fuel, releasing 1.77 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere (again, see “AskPablo: The Tailpipe Mystery” for the derivation). If everyone gets only one DVD per trip, those one billion DVDs would amount to 1,770,000 tons of CO2 emissions (1.77 kg x 1B). If you factor in the return trip, that amount increases to 3,540,000 tons of CO2! This staggering amount would require $26,550,000 to offset via DriveNeutral (www.DriveNeutral.org).
I can hear the complaints already… What if the average person gets 3 DVDs at a time when they go to the video rental store? Well, divide the result by 3 to get 1,180,000 tons of CO2, still a lot…
The lesson in all of this is that mail order is more efficient than driving your personal vehicle (unless it’s a bike). Early attempts at mail-order groceries (Webvan) failed but I am confident that the concept will gain strength as fuel costs continue to rise. A study performed for the record label EMI by the Digital Europe Project compared the relative ecological impact of purchasing a CD at a store (which requires driving there), ordering it on-line (from Amazon for example), or downloading the music (iTunes) and came to a similar conclusion as this Netflix case. An even more efficient option is on-demand movies on cable, or movie downloading (which will gain popularity as bandwidth increases).
Thank you Netflix for doing your part to save the climate, and for carrying great movies like Jacques Tati’s Playtime that I would never find at a Blockbuster…