Earth Day was April 22, and its usual message – take care of our planet – was given added urgency due to the challenges highlighted in the latest IPCC report. This year, Ars takes a look at the technologies we normally cover, from cars to chip manufacturing, and finds out how we can boost their sustainability and minimize their impact on the climate.
Gone are the days of going to Blockbuster to choose a movie for a night out. Physical media like CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, Sony’s weird PlayStation Portable UMDs, and countless other formats have been completely dethroned thanks to a barrage of streaming. services like Netflix, itself struggling at the moment, Amazon Prime and Spotify.
For the first time in the last 17 years, CD sales increased by 1.1%, or 40.59 million units in 2021, compared to 40.16 million units the previous year. In 2021, people purchased 1.2 billion physical video media, up from 6.1 billion a decade earlier. Meanwhile, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, music streaming revenue grew 13.4% to $10.1 billion in 2020.
Physical media may not be dead – there are still people who collect cassette tapes and vinyl has made a small comeback – but streaming is the norm. Nostalgia aside, that’s not exactly a bad thing, ecologically speaking. Overall, the energy and emissions from streaming an entire season of Seinfeld for the umpteenth time are less than buying the same season at Best Buy.
However, all of the environmental benefits differ based on a myriad of factors, such as the time of day you stream, the country you’re in, the content you watch content on, and more. Additionally, while it’s more environmentally friendly to watch on Netflix compared to disc, streaming has made media so available that these benefits can be lost through repeated visits to the “binge-worthy” section.
To broadcast or not to broadcast?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much better it is in certain circumstances to stream a movie than watch it on DVD. Many articles on the subject date back to the early to mid-2010s, and things have 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 performed a comparative lifecycle assessment between a Blu-ray disc and a Netflix movie. The document was the result of an engineering course taken by the team, during which they could perform life cycle benchmarking on anything they wanted. Back then, in 2016, streaming services were on their way to replacing physical media as the streaming method of choice around the world. “It was spoofing physical movie viewing, and it has only intensified over the years,” Nair told Ars.
For the evaluation, the team had to make certain assumptions. For one thing, he assumed the viewer of the movie was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, (which matters because of the energy sources that go into powering a TV and the distance a disc would have to browse, among other factors) and whether they were watching a DVD in 2011 or Netflix in 2017. The viewer also owned a typical LCD TV.
A life cycle assessment takes into account the energy and emissions (among other things) that go into these media, from the creation of the file or disc to its playback and (in the case of a disc) to development. scrapping of the support. For a physical disc, the assessment considered the process of writing the file to the disc and packaging the disc, as well as any energy and/or emissions from the retail process, purchase and , finally, of its use. For the digital file, the assessment only included server loading, file delivery, and usage.
four against one
Nair and his team collected data on both delivery methods from previous life cycle assessments, corporate reports and the EcoInvent database and ran them through life cycle assessment software. life. The results were broken down according to the parameters of the Reduction and Assessment of Chemicals and Other Environmental Impacts (or TRACI) tool, developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. These measurements included the global warming potential (represented in kilograms of CO2 or equivalent), ozone layer depletion (kilograms of CFC-11 or equivalent), and compounds produced that may cause respiratory problems (represented as PM2.5 or equivalent), among others.
By any measure, streaming a movie was less environmentally damaging than buying and playing a Blu-ray disc. In terms of global warming potential, the two streaming methods only achieved the same impact when the viewer streamed the film four times. “As an individual replacement, we have found streaming to be better for the environment than watching on a Blue-ray [disc]”Nair said.
This largely comes down to the simple fact that making a Blu-ray disc involves more steps and materials. In the case of streaming, over the course of a year, 90% of the energy demand came from users using electronic devices and data transmission. Comparatively, only 12% of the physical option’s power came from reading the disc – the rest came from manufacturing, according to the newspaper.