Which is more eco-friendly: Netflix or a Video Store?

A Sustainable Life will occasionally share Q&A’s with you from around the web. Today’s question comes from The Good Human.

Which do you think is better for the environment, a service like Netflix or driving down to the video store here in my town?

First up, Netflix. Netflix, in case you don’t know, is a video rental by mail service. They have been in business for many, many years, and I have been a customer for since the beginning. Once you pick the subscription rate of how many videos you want, both at a time and per month, you add movies to your “Queue” on the website and Netflix ships them out to you as you return the previous movie you had. We are on the “2-at-a-time at home, but unlimited per month” plan, which means I can rent as many movies as I can watch each month, but I can only have 2 at home at a time. But how about the eco-friendliness? Well, the movies come via regular mail, which is already coming to each house anyway, and they barely add any weight/carbon emissions to the postal delivery (1 oz, actually). The mailman is already coming to your house, and the addition of a single DVD is not going to affect his route weight too much. The envelopes are made from recyclable paper, and most of each one is used again to mail the video back to Netflix (it really was ingenious to use the same envelope for shipping both directions). I could not find this information out, but I do hope that they use recycled paper to make the envelopes in the first place. The company doesn’t use the plastic cases that video stores use and has less of a carbon footprint as they only have distribution centers and not stores on every block to heat/cool/maintain. I would say Netflix is much greener than their brick & mortar counterpart…

Next up, the neighborhood video store. Sure, in some places it might be considered “shopping local”, which is always great for a community, but oftentimes these stores are just one in a giant chain (like Blockbuster video). If that is the case, it kind of immediately takes away the benefit of a local store for the local community. As for the eco-friendliness of a video store, they have a long way to go to catch up with video by mail services. First off all there are thousands and thousands of these stores across the country – and each one has to be lit up like a Christmas tree, have TV’s playing during all hours of the day showing previews, and be heated and cooled according to the climate outside. Add to those facts that the all the plastic cases that they need and the promotional pieces/merchandise that has to be made and then discarded, and you have a much bigger waste stream than an online company. And when members want to pick up or return a movie, they have to get in their car (usually alone) and drive to the store 4 times, which emits more pollution than the postal worker who is coming by your house each day anyway.

So, there you have it – in my mind, Netflix wins hands-down. Now, getting movies streamed directly to your TV or computer would be even better, and they are starting to do that too. I have watched a few movies this way, and thus they didn’t even have to ship the movie out to me at all. There are, of course, environmental issues with Netflix too – do they recycle all those returned envelopes? Do they use recycled paper to make them? How do they take delivery of the movies (I would imagine in bulk and not in plastic cases though)? But all in all, this is certainly one case where “nation-wide” beats out “local” on a sustainability level. What do you think?

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