Earth Day was April 22, and its usual message – take care of our planet – has been given added urgency by the challenges highlighted in the latest IPCC report. This year, Ars takes a look at the technologies we typically cover, from cars to chip manufacturing, and finds out how we can increase their sustainability and minimize their climate impact.
Gone are the days of going to Blockbuster to pick a movie for a night out. Physical media like CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, Sony’s odd PlayStation Portable UMDs, and myriad other formats have been thoroughly dethroned thanks to a spate of streaming services like Netflix – which is currently itself battered – Amazon Prime and Spotify.
For the first time in 17 years, CDs saw sales increase by 1.1 percent or 40.59 million units in 2021 compared to 40.16 million units in the previous year. In 2021, people bought 1.2 billion pieces of physical video media, compared to 6.1 billion a decade earlier. Music streaming revenue grew 13.4 percent to $10.1 billion in 2020, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
Physical media might not be dead — there are still people who collect cassettes, and vinyl has made a small comeback — but streaming is the norm. Nostalgia aside, that’s not exactly bad from an ecological point of view. Overall, the energy and emissions of streaming an entire season of Seinfeld umpteenth times is less than purchasing the same season from Best Buy.
However, all environmental benefits differ depending on myriad factors, e.g. B. what time of day you are streaming, what country you are in, what content you are watching the content on, etc. Also, it is more environmentally friendly to watch shows on Netflix which has streaming compared to a disc Media exposed in such a way that these benefits may be lost through repeated visits to the binge-worthy section.
To stream or not to stream?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much better – under certain circumstances – streaming a movie is compared to watching it on a DVD. Many of the articles on this topic date back to the early to mid 2010s, and a lot has changed since then. In a study published in 2019, Aditya Nair—then an engineering student at Michigan State University and now a full-time engineer—and his team conducted a comparative lifecycle analysis between a Blu-ray disc and a Netflix movie. The work was the result of a technical course the team had taken, during which they were able to carry out the comparative life cycle analysis for anything they wanted. Back in 2016, streaming services were on their way to displacing physical media as the world’s preferred delivery method. “It has usurped the physical viewing of movies, and that’s only gotten more intense over the years,” Nair told Ars.
For the evaluation, the team had to make certain assumptions. First, they assumed that the viewer of the film was in Ann Arbor, Michigan (important, among other things, because of the power sources needed to run a television and the distance a disc would have to travel) and that they were watching Watch either a DVD in 2011 or Netflix in 2017. The viewer also possessed a typical LCD television.
An LCA takes into account (among other things) the energy and emissions that go into that media, from creating the file or disc to watching it and (in the case of a disc) discarding the media. For a physical disc, the rating takes into account the process of writing the file to the disc and packaging the disc, as well as any energy and/or emissions derived from the retail process, purchase and ultimately its use. For the digital file, the assessment only included server loading, file delivery and usage.
four to one
Nair and his team collected data on the two delivery methods from previous LCAs, portions of corporate reporting and the EcoInvent database and ran them through LCA software. Results were broken down by metrics from the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Tool for Reduction and Assessment of Chemicals and Other Environmental Impacts (or TRACI). These metrics included global warming potential (represented in kilograms of CO2 or equivalent), ozone depletion (kilograms of CFC-11 equivalent) and produced compounds that may cause respiratory problems, among other things (shown in PM2.5 or equivalent).
Across all metrics, streaming a movie was less polluting than buying and watching a Blu-ray disc. In terms of global warming potential, the two delivery methods achieved the same effect only when the viewer streamed the film four times. “As a one-to-one replacement, we’ve found that streaming is better for the environment than watching on a Blu-ray [disc]’ Nair said.
Much of this stems from the simple fact that making a Blu-ray disc requires more steps and materials. With streaming, a good 90 percent of the energy requirement over the course of the year came from users who operate electronic devices and transmit data. By comparison, just 12 percent of the physical option’s energy came from playing the disc — the rest came from manufacturing, according to the newspaper.