The Dematerialization of CDs and DVDs

SMART 2020 defines "dematerialization" as the process by which an ICT product or service replaces a high carbon activity with a low carbon one. It concludes that a total dematerialization of CDs and DVDs by online media could reduce global CO2 by 17 million tonnes annually. This assumes 17 billion discs produced annually at 1 kg of CO2 per disc. How does that 1 kg figure stack up against other analyses?

We came up with about half that number when we looked at the Fox Entertainment DVD data, but the Fox data only covered distribution to retail. We observed that CO2 from consumer travel could easily push it up above 5 kg/disc. We came up with ~8.6 kg/disc in our analysis of Microsoft data, which does include significant customer travel. "Full package product materials- related emissions were the largest contributor until customer transportation (to and from the retail store) was included in the model."

It seems one should use the net savings of converting from physical to digital in a dematerialization analysis, as digital downloads do have a footprint. In the Microsoft analysis, we concluded that the net savings would be 7.6 kg/disc. But we also noted that the Microsoft numbers were based on assumptions about the that company's very large scales and efficiencies and suggested that savings ~25% lower might be more realistic. But even at 5.7/kg/disc reduction, we're still way ahead of SMART 2020's 1 kg/disc. The good news here is that total dematerialization could save significantly more than than 17 mega-tonnes of CO2.

We'll see if we can get additional data from SMART 2020 and update this post. In the meantime, you can review all of SMART 2020's dematerialization results for yourself.

Last thought: SMART 2020 reminds us that dematerialization "is difficult to calculate as the impacts rely on behaviour change."

Related: The Dematerialization of Mail

Update 20100108:
How long until the dematerialization of DVDs? Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is reported by Digital Daily as saying that Netflix will be shipping DVD's for another 20 years. How does that test out against other media lifecycles?

The first nationwide NTSC color broadcast was in 1954 and the format died in the US in 2009, so give a 55-year life span to analog color TVs. The home VCR, which debuted ~1975, is essentially dead, so let's give it a 35-year live span. Audio CDs, commercially available since 1982, are fading. Will they make the 35-year mark in 2017? The 55-year mark in 2037?

The DVD was introduced ~1997, so its 35-year milestone will be 2032. This is consistent with Hastings' prediction of 20 more years.

The most long-lived AV media format is the 33-1/3 rpm LP record. Its commercial success dates back to 1948 (although available since 1931), almost died at the end of the 20th century, and is now on a minor rebound as a niche format for audiophiles.

Update 2010.08.05
Swiss company EcoDisc offers a DVD it says has ~50% less polycarbonate, production energy, and CO2 emissions and is 100% recyclable. The company demonstrates it understanding of the trend toward dematerialization when it openly positions its product as alternative to conventional DVDs "until digital data delivery takes over completely", although it has also questioned how quickly physical media will disappear.