Environmentally Unfriendly: The Impact of CDs and DVDs

For many years, sending out data and software via CD or DVD was the only way for software companies to keep their customers up-to-date with their latest releases. As technology has evolved, many companies have adopted digital distribution methods, but not all businesses have succeeded in making that switch. When considering what distribution method would be best for our customers, we took many factors into consideration, one of them being the environmental impact of using CDs or DVDs versus digital distribution as our means to disseminate software. In this post, I will bring forward some of the negative environmental consequences that result from using and producing CDs and DVDs. In part two of this series, I will talk about the efficient and ecofriendly way that we at geoLOGIC get our customers the information they need.

I always knew that downloading software through digital means had to be more environmentally friendly than getting a CD, complete with jewel case, plastic wrap, and disc, but I never could have guessed what kind of environmental problems a software company like geoLOGIC might be able to help mitigate by switching from physical to digital distribution methods.  Because they produce far more carbon emissions than digital delivery, and are difficult to dispose of, CDs and DVDs have an undeniably negative impact on our planet.

First of all, the distribution of software using CDs or DVDs produces far more carbon emissions than digital distribution. A study conducted in 2009 by Accenture and WSP Environment & Energy found that choosing digital distribution over traditional CD/DVD distribution could result in a 91% reduction in carbon emissions for Microsoft business customers. There are many reasons for this decrease, including the manufacturing of CDs and their cases, and the transportation of the software packages to customers. The study found that over these customers’ contracts, which were generally three years in length, they could potentially reduce carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions by 4058 metric tons.  According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, this amount of emissions is roughly equal to:

  • 454 933 gallons of gasoline consumed
  • Emissions from 845 passenger vehicles
  • The electricity use of 558 homes for one year
  • Carbon sequestered annually by 3326 acres of U.S. forests

If the impact of one company switching from physical to digital distribution could be that large, imagine what an effect a shift across an entire industry, let alone an entire country or continent, could produce!

Furthermore, disposing of CDs and DVDs is problematic. The discs are made of layers of different mixed materials, including a combination of various mined metals and petroleum–derived plastics, lacquers and dyes, which, when disposed of, can pollute groundwater and bring on a myriad of health problems. Most jewel cases are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which has been thought to produce a higher-than-normal cancer rate within workers and those who live in the area where it is manufactured. They also release harmful chemicals when incinerated.

Unfortunately most CDs and DVDs meet their end in the incinerator, as they are very difficult to recycle. When PVC is processed with regular recyclables, it can sully entire batches, ruin equipment, and bring on health problems, so CDs and DVDs can’t just be tossed in your blue recycling bin, but instead have to be sent to specialized recycling facilities. Due to lack of awareness of these facilities and the inconvenience of packaging up old discs and sending them away, most people resort to tossing them in the trash - in the United States, upwards of 5.5 million software packages end up in landfills and incinerators each year. Even those that do manage to send them to the appropriate recycling facility are adding one more step to their environmentally-damaging journey by sending them on a CO2 producing plane or transport truck. Eliminating the need for CDs in the first places would mean less waste in our landfills and less toxic chemicals in our air, and it’s hard to argue against that.

It’s important for all companies to think about how their practices affect our planet, and to recognize ways that they can help to promote a positive environmental future. As stated in the Accenture/WSP study, “For software and other digital media, the carbon savings are significantly greater than for products such as apparel, because digital media is completely delivered to the customer via digital download rather than simply being ordered online and then shipped”.  In other words, we as software companies have an opportunity to make a huge difference in our environmental impact by changing our distribution methods.  Stay tuned for part two, where I’ll talk about the efficient and environmentally friendly way we get our software to our clients. Here’s a hint – it’s DVD free!