Which Is More Eco-Friendly: Netflix Or A Video Store?


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I received a question from reader Nancy the other day that I thought I would try to answer here for everyone to read: “Which do you think is better for the environment, a service like Netflix or driving down to the video store here in my town?” Good question Nancy, thanks for sending it in. I am sure there are many people who are wondering the same thing! While there are probably eco-advantages to both types of rental set-ups, I am going to go on record and say that I believe Netflix to be the more eco-friendly of the two. Let’s take a look at why I believe that to be the case…

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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  1. It is, and that’s why I mentioned it. But most people don’t have the right setup to be able to do it, and not many want to sit in front of their computer to watch a movie. There are TV’s and DVD players for sale that will stream Netflix, so it’s only a matter of time before anyone can have it that way.

  2. If she shops at the store anyway on a regular basis, just have them print it. If she doesn’t, then have them shipped directly to her house.

  3. What about Redbox? You could argue that it captures the economies of scale in that it uses the roof/climate of its “host store”, and most users are “going there anyway”. But, my feeling is that it would generate a second round-trip by car to return the DVD since it is $1 per night rental.
    Also the Redbox model uses fewer staff, though someone needs to come by and fill it up with new releases. I believe all money is done thru credit card.
    So, with no fixed building costs, it has a lower carbon footprint than either Netflix or B&M store up front, but it may generate additional car trips to return movies once watched. Thoughts?

    1. Sure, if you happen to be at the store that has one. But driving from your house just to rent one, and then having to return it, would defeat the purpose I think, right?

  4. What about photos, David? I’m going to print about 200 pictures from her digital camera. She is not all that comfortable with computers, so she can’t view them on her computer. I’m going to send them online for prints, and I can’t decide if I should send them to a local store for her to pick it up or have the mail deliver it.

  5. I guess I’m one of the few cases where it’s far more eco-friendly to go to the video store. We have one of those little mom & pop video stores. Every day, we drive downtown, grab a latte at the local coffee shop, and walk the dog. Almost every store in town lets us bring him in with us, including the video store. Supporting my downtown will never go out of style 🙂

    If it was a blockbuster, or a movie gallery (Canada), we wouldn’t bother.

    Also, Netflix isn’t available in Canada as far as I know.

  6. We have a local store too, but its not exactly on my way to anywhere nor near anything else. So I would have to make a special trip, both directions, to pick up a movie.

  7. Yeah, I can see why that wouldn’t be the most earth friendly way to go about it 🙂

    I’m lucky to have a nice one on my dog walking route!

  8. SO glad you addressed this question. As a Netflix fan, I often wonder about the trade off between the supporting local business vs the fuel miles and paper associated with Netflix. Thanks for the thoughtful post! I think I’ll stick with Netflix.

    Has anyone tried the Netflix streaming to your TV service?

  9. Janet, we recently got a DVD player that can stream the Netflix movies (that are available to watch live). It’s really convenient, and much easier than watching on a computer screen. I will warn you, though, the quality of some movies is less than desirable… but these will be the ones we either watch on the computer screen or have sent to us instead.

  10. How many Netflix service centers are there, and how many thousands and thousands of local video stores are there? I still believe, even taking into account the small backbone that Netflix needs to operate, that the use less energy, they create less waste, and they spend less money.

  11. Thanks for the article, but Netflix is a little more than just getting your DVDs in the mail.

    You are neglecting to factor in the warehousing costs associated with all of the videos, the hundreds if not thousands of servers that are on 24/7 to power netflix.com (let alone the rest of the business). And while you’re right that one dvd @ 1oz does not seriously affect the mail carriers, mail carriers do not usually just carry one dvd @ 1oz at a time. In a metro area, think thousands upon thousands of DVDs all at once – to the point where Netflix uses its own metro-based shipping facilities to handle the high volume. Yes the envelopes can be used twice, but that’s it! For every DVD that goes out and comes back, that’s another paper envelope. Even if the envelope is made from recycled paper, that’s a HUGE amount of paper that gets wasted.

    Your local video store on the other hand, has a much smaller inventory and rather than SHIP the videos, the patron walks out of the store with a DVD in their hands. Yes the DVDs come in a plastic case, but that case will likely hold the DVD for the entire life of the DVD (rather than having to stuff the DVD into a new paper evnvelope every time it gets sent). If you walk/ride your bike to your LOCAL video store (not Blockbuster), then the patron actually gets the novel experience of interacting with another human being AND keeping their money in their local economy.

    Don’t get me wrong – I used NetFlix and I love it. But to me, ‘better for the environment’ means a lot more than just something that pollutes less. If we’re going to seriously talk about sustainability, there needs to be a social and community-oriented focus. I have no HARD evidence that local video stores are more ‘eco-friendly’ than NetFlix, but taking into account the bigger picture of NetFlix along with the community component, I am not convinced that it is more ‘eco-friendly’ than your local mom-and-pop video store.

  12. Not exactly the same topic, but how about a comparison of going to see a movie at a movie theater and renting a DVD and watching it at home? I can imagine it takes quite much energy to project a movie on a big screen with a loud surround sound system. But the fact 400-600 people can enjoy it at once reduces the energy consumption per person dramatically… just like taking public transportation is better than driving individual cars. I wonder which is more eco friendly.

  13. Matt – interesting idea. I think Netflix would beat it still, as everyone has to drive to the theater by themselves, the energy needed to run projectors/heat and cool the building, and the enormous amounts of waste generated in paper cups and candy/popcorn wrappers. Netflix goes with the mail, and he is coming by your house anyway. I believe Netflix would be the more eco-friendly option.

  14. You can also stream netflix to your xbox 360, no need to buy a new tv or dvd player or software for your computer. For around $9/month we have unlimited streaming and if a movie isn’t available to be streamed, it is mailed to us. I agree that for a majority of people netfix is a greener option, but that may not be the case for some situations. For us, blockbuster is in walking distance, but it is expensive and corporate.

    1. It is good that it is within walking distance, but those stores create an awful amount of waste, no matter where they are. And if you don’t have an xbox 360, you would need to buy one. 🙂 For me, I stream to my laptop and watch them there – it’s pretty good.

  15. One issue that nobody has addressed yet is what happens to the plastic dvds when they are scratched. Most smaller video stores will resurface the disc whereas Netflix, Rentrak and other large corporate video retailers just log the damage and discard the discs. How can anyone say that these retailers are “green” when they are dumping tons of discarded disc into landfills.

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