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The Environmental Facet of Online Consumerism
Adrian Muller, 23 Nov 07

Radiohead, a band that has been actively involved in raising awareness on climate change, has recently opted to release its latest record as a digital download exclusive. It's a move that regardless of the reasons behind (publicity, ethical, you name it) and the fact that the record will end up being physically released through a record label, sets a precedent of things to come in the near future. Chris Anderson, the editor in chief of Wired Magazine, describes in his book The Long Tail how the digitalization of media combined with the growing ubiquity of access to the Internet has enabled new forms of media distribution that require no real inventory: no warehouse or shelf space required to store the publication or recording, no manufacturing and shipping. While Anderson is most concerned with the cultural and economic implications of this revolution, it's important to note that ultimately it can have a profound affect on the environmental impacts of the consumer economy, as well.

The lifecycle of a CD or DVD -- from obtaining raw materials, through manufacture, packaging, distribution and disposal -- is a complex process that generates a considerable amount of waste along the way. In the United States alone, every month some 100,000 pounds of CDs become outdated, useless or unwanted, especially as their useful lifespan contracts: among younger generations in developed countries, CDs are often only used to upload the content they hold into digital devices, limiting the lifespan of a CD to a single use. The possibility of digital-only distribution to reduce at least some of the current CD production would mean good news for the environment.

Likewise, mass acceptance of digital books could translate in thousands of trees saved. In an attempt to finally bring ebooks mainstream, Amazon has recently presented the Kindle, an electronic reader that comes with an impressive list of features to enhance the user experience, such as improved readability, web browsing capabilities, and cellular connectivity to download content directly to the device.

Sceptics argue that the production of the devices used to play digital media has proliferated considerably in just the past few years -- the Kindle is merely the latest in an ever growing flood of MP3 players, mobile phones, and handheld digital assistants -- and that from production to disposal, these cause as much pollution as old media formats. iPods certainly generate their share of e-waste, but a 160 GB iPod can hold the equivalent of 3,300 record albums and that in terms of physical space is already a lot. Additionally, these devices are becoming more and more multifunctional: a single device is capable of acting as phone, music player and camera at the same time. This characteristic ideally should translate in the reduction of production overall of these devices.

While doing research for this article, I ran into an exercise that tries to measure the environmental impact of the iTunes store. Despite the simplicity of the analysis, it gives a pretty good idea:

In early January 2007, Steve Jobs announced that Apple had sold over 2,000,000,000 songs via the iTunes Store. That's about 166,000,000 CDs. Stacked one on top of each other, this pile of CDs (in their jewel cases) would reach almost 1,050 miles high. If you tipped over this pile, it would extend more than one-third of the way from New York to LA. If you laid the CDs down on the ground, they would cover 4.33 billion square inches which is about 640 acres of CDs. That's a lot of landfill...
Lets look at this another way. A CD along with a slim plastic case and one or two pages of liner notes weighs about 60 grams. (That's about .13224 lbs.) If a standard tractor trailer can move 80,000 pounds of product (or about 605,000 CDs), the Apple iTunes Store has saved about 275 tractor trailers worth of CDs from being manufactured and shipped and is adding to that by about five tractor trailers worth per week.

Digital distribution is definitely not the panacea for all sustainability problems -- nothing really is. But as people increasingly obtain and use information via digital/physical rather than wholly physical means, we ought to be sure to track how this mitigates the effects on the environment of mass production.

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Comments

I couldn't agree more with this assessment. I also think Apple is not treated fairly on their contrbution to greener technology. Apple's optimized approach to design, technology, usability, extended product life and compliance with environmental standards demonstrates green electronics leadership. With 309+ million iPod owners expected by 2009, consider how many wasteful CD/DVD's the iPod eco-system has eliminated. The iPod provides many years of useful life and there's high demand for used and refurbished models. Apple also offers free recycling and trade-up programs for all their products. JohnnyGreen www.greenelectronics.com


Posted by: JohnnyGreen on 24 Nov 07

Standard tractor trailers can only move from 38000 lbs to 48000 lbs (dependes on configuration of power unit and trailer) of product. 80,000 lbs is total weight. So maybe the savings would be twice the 275 tractor trailers' stated in the article.


Posted by: Allen Tribbey on 24 Nov 07

The 2 billion songs sold through iTunes arguably represent far more than 166 million CDs. While the average CD holds 12 songs, I doubt a consumer purchasing songs from that CD on iTunes would purchase more than 3 or 4 songs on average. This means those 2 billion songs could represent more like 500-700 million CDs, enough to make it ALL the way to LA...


Posted by: Brandon Frisbie on 25 Nov 07

I'm a huge fan of The Long Tail and find it interesting when technology and the environment coexist with minimal problems. As someone that is an anti-consumer, meaning that I purchase items out of need and when I want something, I look at the impact the purchase will have before I buy it. And as such, I think the digital age is changing what it means to own something, as in a downloaded song is yours to use whether you do or do not have the plastic case and liner notes in your hand.


Posted by: Kari on 26 Nov 07

I'm a huge fan of The Long Tail and find it interesting when technology and the environment coexist with minimal problems. As someone that is an anti-consumer, meaning that I purchase items out of need and when I want something, I look at the impact the purchase will have before I buy it. And as such, I think the digital age is changing what it means to own something, as in a downloaded song is yours to use whether you do or do not have the plastic case and liner notes in your hand.


Posted by: Kari on 26 Nov 07

I'm a huge fan of The Long Tail and find it interesting when technology and the environment coexist with minimal problems. As someone that is an anti-consumer, meaning that I purchase items out of need and when I want something, I look at the impact the purchase will have before I buy it. And as such, I think the digital age is changing what it means to own something, as in a downloaded song is yours to use whether you do or do not have the plastic case and liner notes in your hand.


Posted by: Kari on 26 Nov 07

I'm a huge fan of The Long Tail and find it interesting when technology and the environment coexist with minimal problems. As someone that is an anti-consumer, meaning that I purchase items out of need and when I want something, I look at the impact the purchase will have before I buy it. And as such, I think the digital age is changing what it means to own something, as in a downloaded song is yours to use whether you do or do not have the plastic case and liner notes in your hand.


Posted by: Kari on 26 Nov 07

I would also like to note that the process of purchasing physical objects online can often be more environmentally friendly then purchasing in brick and mortar store.
Warehouse that hold contents have a smaller footprint in terms of actual physical products/acre and in terms electricity used Watts/acre, this is because of lower light levels, lower temperatures, closed doors on freezers, and no need to dedicate "shelf space" to products.
Also a mass delivery system such as Canada Post, UPS, etc... is much more efficient then our current primary delivery method of single occupant privately owned vehicles.


Posted by: hswerdfe on 27 Nov 07



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