I know this headline looks like Clickbait 101, but bear with me. We film fans (as well as music fans and gamers, for that matter) are always talking about how we’re doing humanity a favor by preserving art for future generations. But is my DVD copy of The Happening (2008) really worth preserving? Is the film at risk of being erased from history? And perhaps more importantly, what has it taken for this film to be with me in physical form?
Let’s look at the environmental impact of this industry as a whole, and then try and estimate the exact eco-cost of my very own collection, from production, to shipping and finally, disposal when I inevitably kick the bucket.
Step 1: Production
Even if we leave aside research processes, as well as the production for supportive devices like DVD players and games consoles, there’s a very tangible environmental cost to the manufacture of DVDs and Blu-Rays. At the risk of sounding mega-boring, let’s talk about plastics, shall we?
1.1 The Case for Polypropylene
Almost universally, physical media cases are made from plastic. Specifically, from a compound called polypropylene. Ever since we first started using it in the late 50s, the industry has grown exponentially, with revenues around US$145 billion last year alone. While that sounds good for the wallets of all involved, it’s not so good for the environment.
Polypropylene is made from, and with, oil and gas (natural gas, not gasoline). We all know the dangers of relying on fossil fuels, but in 2019 alone, the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the pollution from 189 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. And coal power plants aren’t exactly green, are they?
1.2 Spinning Right Round with Polycarbonate
Great news: CD, DVD and Blu-Ray discs are not made from polypropylene! The bad news is that they are made from polycarbonate, which in terms of environmental damage, it’s about as different to polypropylene as a potah-to is to a potato. Which is to say, not much.
As you might have guessed, polycarbonates are used for discs because they are tougher than polypropylene, which is a very desirable feature for a medium for storing literal art. This resilience is, sadly, also partly responsible for polycarbonate’s extremely long decomposition rate. In fact, it is estimated that, unless properly disposed of (which is a rare occurrence), CDs might take as long as a million years to fully decompose. More on that later.
Step 2: Shipping
So, what happens once your brand-new copy of Halloween Kills (2021) rolls off the production line next year? It must get to you, of course! Even with physical copies that are assembled in the United States, the production of the physical media often happens overseas.
This means that, for your Blu-Ray to even enter production, it has already traveled half the circumference of the plant, most likely aboard a shipping container on a ship.
Assuming a best-case scenario, where there are no spills, no crashes, no bandits or pirates, no crashes, etc., the shipping process is still one of the worst pollutants of modern times.
A recently-built container ship will generate about 40g of CO2 per metric tonne of cargo, per kilometer traveled. The most eco-friendly container ships can carry up to 210,000 tonnes.
|40g CO2 per tonne per km||210,000 tonnes||11,000km (US to China)||92,400,000,000 CO2 (single ship, single one-way trip)|
So, a single container ship that comes from China to the US generates 92,400 tonnes of CO2. That’s a single trip. And that’s the most eco-friendly shipping method! Air shipping (like when Amazon ships stuff from a far-away warehouse) is 10 times more polluting.
Step 3: Disposal
A few years from now, after enjoying my collection for a couple of decades, I’ll kick the bucket and leave this Earthly plane. When that inevitably happens, what will become of my collection?
In Paraguay, where I currently live, there are no established recycling of… well, anything, really. And for most of the developing world, it’s basically the same. If that doesn’t change, my collection is likely to end up at the dump.
Sadly, even in countries like the US, most physical media ends up at the dump anyway. Physical software alone is responsible for 5.5 million boxes of the stuff going to the dump each year, and that’s been a dead business for years now.
As I mentioned before, not only can it take up to a million years for CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays to fully decompose, but, in the process, the breakdown releases all kinds of nasty byproducts. Just as an example, polycarbonates release Bisphenol A (BPA), which is so toxic, it’s been banned, or is in the process of being banned, by pretty much all major governments. This is due to its negative effects on humans, particularly when it comes to reproduction and tissue damage.
And that is just one byproduct of one type of plastic. I’m afraid the full list of negative effects associated with plastic that’s not been properly disposed of is rather long. You can read more about it at one of the sources we’ve used for this article.
Time to Figure Out Just How Badly I’m Killing The Planet
With all of that background information, I’m now in a position to create a nice, neat little table. I think if I do this just for me, it’ll be a bit of a pointless exercise. So, I’ll create a formula for calculating the environmental impact per 100 DVDs. That way, you guys can get a rough estimate of your own situation based on your collection as well.
And it is key to emphasize this: rough estimate. This is not a thoroughly exhaustive scientific research project (though we used some of those to write this article). It is meant to give a ballpark figure for some things, sure, but it’s really meant as a conversation starter. A way for us to start understanding the environmental impact behind our physical media consumption, and how to mitigate it.
With that out of the way, let’s get this done!
Tables Not Your Thing? Here’s Some Context!
For every 100 DVDs in your collection, manufactured in China and sold in the US, the whole shebang would have created around 17,583.94 kg of CO2. How much CO2 is that? For every single DVD I own, it takes a tree almost 8 years to remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
And that is a single variable assuming best-case scenarios for production and shipping, and not taking into consideration disposal. Landfills not only generate a tremendous amount of gasses, but also other pollutants, which go to the atmosphere, to the sea, and even back to us directly.
In terms of raw materials, you could cook for your family for a few months just by using the natural gas and oil needed to make the plastic. If you were to use the energy needed to make the plastic for 100 DVDs to power your home, you could keep your house lit and warm in winter for over 4 days.
What to Do Now?
The information is overwhelming. Even after 4 weeks of researching this piece, I’m struggling to understand the full environmental impact of physical media. But there’s one thing that is inescapable: we must begin the conversation.
We have to acknowledge that this is an issue that needs to be considered. I’m not against physical collections, by any means. But there are simple, easy ways to mitigate the damage we’re doing: shopping local, the dreaded digital options, proper recycling, and more. In fact, I’d love to revisit this topic from the point of view of solutions, rather than problems.
Can’t wait? I’ve found a great organization which dedicates itself to planting trees in Uganda. They help recreate a healthy habitat for primates. Each tree is only $1!
For the time being, I hope this has been useful to you all. Use the formula above to calculate your own environmental impact. Simply multiply each variable by the number of DVDs you own. Leave a comment below with your CO2 footprint! I’m very curious to hear what the results are.