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 (
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…

7 responses

  1. Just think of the difference when NetFlix goes to all-download format in a few years! ‘course I walk to the video store since I live in a real neighborhood, so it’s probably about the same for me!

  2. Don’t forget that the “last mile” of the NetFlix delivery is done in conjunction with other things, the DVDs “carpool” for lack of a better word.
    The mail is being delivered to your house anyway, the NetFlix DVD simply rides along. Unless you get lots of mail and it causes extra trips for the mailman, there is lots of efficiency gains.
    It a similar concept as public transportation. The more it is used the more efficient it gets.
    Admittedly, some people who rent movies will do so while combining trips – like on the way home from work, and whatnot. But from my own personal experience, before NetFlix we used to make at least three trips to the video store a week. Now? None.
    So when you add in the benefits of the mail “carpooling” and then subtract the possible combined trip usage of the brick and mortar users – you are still looking at HUGE efficiency gains.
    Even conservatively we could double the calculations for NetFlix and halve the POV trips – and still be millions of times more efficient to use NetFlix.

  3. Is the CO2 impact of the (one billion) envelopes worth considering? In a brick and mortar video store only one case is used for the life of the DVD (a case which is made of plastic and is many times heavier than the NetFlix envelope).
    I also wonder what fraction of NetFlix mail backs are delivered to the post office by automobile. Probably not many since there are no late fees (but then again, I know people who drive across town to simply fill up their gas tank at a station with slightly lower prices).

  4. Another potential environmental plus of Netflix might be their disc cases, which are Tyvek sleeves instead of a large plastic box. A typical DVD case for a movie has many times more plastic than is in the DVD itself. I imagine that they get their discs in some sort of bulk packs from the manufacturer, so plastic savings from box sets (like TV series) could be significant.

  5. In an academic paper called “Comparative Energy, Environmental, and Economic Analysis of Traditional and E-commerce DVD Rental Networks” published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology (Volume 11, Number 3, 2008), authors Deepak Sivaraman, Sergio Pacca, Kimberly Mueller, and Jessica Lin of the University of Michigan looked at the life cycle of the two systems. They included the energy/emissions to manufacture the plastic cases or envelopes, the energy/emissions to run a distribution center or retail outlet, the energy/emissions to get the DVD to a person’s house, and many other steps in the process.
    Here’s part of the abstract (my emphasis):

    This study is a comparative life-cycle assessment (LCA) of two competing digital video disc (DVD) rental networks: the e-commerce option, where the customer orders the movies online, and the traditional business option, where the customer goes to the rental store to rent a movie. The analytical framework proposed is for a customer living in the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan in the United States. The primary energy and environmental performance for both networks are presented using a multicriterion LCA. The package selected by the traditional network is responsible for 67% of the difference in total energy consumption of the two alternatives. Results show that the e-commerce alternative consumed 33% less energy and emitted 40% less CO2 than the traditional option…..The mode of transportation used by the customer in the traditional business model also affects global emissions and energy consumption. The customer walking to the store is by far the best option in the traditional network; however, the e-commerce option performed comparatively better despite all transportation modes tested….

    The full article is available to subscribers only (like large academic libraries).

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