It would have been entirely possible that the heavy energy use at the data centre, plus the transmission costs balanced out the production, shipping and driving back and forth that is the life of a rental DVD - but no. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime really do have an environmental benefit (for the reasons above, and also because DVD players take a lot more energy than a streaming box like an Apple TV or a Smart TV with built-in streaming services) - and there's a study to prove it.
Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and Northwestern University have come up with impressive savings that suggest if all DVD viewing in the US in 2011 was shifted to streaming services, around 2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could have been avoided and around 30 petajoules of energy saved—the equivalent of the amount of electricity needed to meet the demands of 200,000 US households. Not trivial.
It seems the impact of online rental/purchase of DVDs had a similar impact to streaming, but renting or buying DVDs from a physical store is much more energy intensive because of the impact of the drive. Clearly this would also be true in the UK, but my suspicion is that the impact here would be less, as car journeys in the UK tend to be shorter, and cars tend to be more environmentally friendly than those in the US. And 2011 was a long time ago in the video watching world - I suspect significantly fewer of us now drive to get a DVD (bye-bye Blockbuster).
As streaming increases, the report's authors suggest that effort should be put into improving the efficiency of end user devices and network transmission energy to bring down the energy use even further.
Even so, those of us who have largely moved from DVDs or Blurays to streaming can feel suitably smug.
If you are the kind of person who likes to dig into the actual paper, you can find it by clicking this link.
Fast Facts courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood Institute of Physics:
- An estimated 1.2 billion DVDs were purchased in the US in 2011
- An estimated 17.2 billion hours of DVDs were viewed in 2011 in the US
- An estimated 3.2 billion hours of movies and television programmes were streamed in the US in 2011
- The percentages of total video streaming viewing time attributable to computers, televisions, and mobile devices in 2011 are estimated at 20%, 77%, and 3%, respectively