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The Energy Saved By Ditching DVDs Could Power 200,000 Homes

Even accounting for data centers, streaming is much more environmentally friendly than buying a DVD.
Image: Flickr/Peter Taylor

If you still buy DVDs, you're killing the environment.

Maybe that's a little extreme, but the environmental benefits of streaming a movie (or downloading it) rather than purchasing a DVD are staggering, according to a new US government study by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

If all DVDs purchased in 2011 were streamed instead, the energy savings would have been enough to meet the electricity demands of roughly 200,000 households. It would have cut roughly 2 billion kilograms of carbon emissions.


If, like me, you're thinking, "who buys DVDs anymore, anyways," the answer is "a lot of people."

Image: Environmental Research Letters

Despite the advent of hi-res streaming sites and hi-res digital downloads, Americans still spent $7.78 billion on physical DVDs and Blu-Ray discs last year; they only spent $4.35 billion on digital versions of movies and subscription streaming services such as Netflix. Of course, both are trending in the expected ways: Physical media sales dropped 8 percent in 2013, and digital movie sales were up roughly 47 percent. But people are still buying a lot of DVDs, roughly 1.2 billion last year.

It's admittedly nice to own physical media and place it in on a shelf in your living room, but streaming is better environmentally from almost every perspective. DVDs have to be manufactured (often overseas), shipped, held in a storefront (or an Amazon warehouse), picked up in a car, and then played, most commonly, on a DVD player or game console, which use more energy than a laptop or a Roku (or whatever your streaming appliance of choice is). DVDs stay in the home for roughly five years, according to the study, before they are thrown into a landfill somewhere.

According to the study, published in Environmental Research Letters, even when you take into account cloud storage, data servers, the streaming device, streaming uses much less energy than purchasing a DVD.


"Data center energy use—both operational and embodied within the IT equipment—account for less than 1 percent of the total video streaming energy use," the study said.

Most of the energy use comes from actually getting the video to you—the internet connection itself—and the device you're streaming with.

Image: Environmental Research Letters

Watching one hour of streaming video requires roughly 8 megajoules of energy, compared to 12 megajoules for watching a DVD. Unless you're an electrical engineer, those numbers aren't going to mean a whole lot to you, 8 is a third less than 12, and that's what we're striving for.

If you're absolutely tied to physical media, there is one way you can keep watching DVDs without feeling bad: You can buy them on Amazon, or you can rent them through Netflix's mail-service. Just like you may have been surprised to find out that cloud storage uses only a minimal amount of energy, you might also be surprised to learn that manufacture and shipment of the DVD accounts for a similarly small amount of the overall energy used to get that copy of Twilight (and it was that or Despicable Me 2 sold to a staggering 5 million Americans last year) onto your screen.

This study, which, remember, was funded and carried out by the US government, has a lot of potential implications, particularly with regards to net neutrality and, perhaps, preventing manufacturers from making streaming devices that use a lot of energy ("policy makers should focus on the efficiency of end-user devices and network transmission energy to curb energy use from future increases in video streaming," Shehabi notes).

Image: Environmental Research Letters

Shehabi also suggests that "if more complex video platforms gain popularity in the marketplace (i.e., ultra high-definition or 3D video), streaming video may require greater data transfer rates while the change in manufacturing and transport of physical media would be minimal."

Meanwhile, there's that little debate going on in Washington right now about whether internet service providers should be allowed to discriminate against certain types of web traffic, with high quality streaming sites such as Netflix being the main target. What easier way to keep streaming environmentally friendly than by limiting the quality at which the video comes in?