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iTunes, a model of conservation

February 12, 2010

My friend pointed out to me the other day an often-overlooked facet of downloading music. It is saving the production of millions of CD’s, meaning less plastic that will someday sit in landfills. It reduces carbon from shipping the CD’s all over the world. Not to mention that it is certainly cheaper and more convenient for consumers, making it a win for them and the environment.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, and Stanford University concluded that downloaded music reduces CO2 emissions by 60 to 80 percent.

The range is so wide because a lot of variables go into the purchasing of the music. It can vary if a person drives to the CD store, or if the file is very large, or if they are ordering an album online or various other scenarios. (Here’s the entire 30 page report.)

A good statistic I found was that even the best-case scenario for the physical delivery option – online retail shipped by truck – uses 62 percent more energy than the worst-case downloading scenario – in which you burn the music to a CD and put it in a plastic case.

Here are some of my own calculations from the report in an attempt to find out how much CO2 iTunes has theoretically prevented with their online store:

  • 9.833 billion songs have been downloaded on iTunes as of this writing
  • An album averages about 12 songs
  • Physical option averages 2567 g CO2/album
  • Digital option averages 750 g CO2/album
  • Formula:
    • (total songs / songs per album) (Physical option g CO2 – digital option g CO2) / (1.0 × 10^6 grams per metric ton)
    • = (9.883 billion / 12)(2567-750)/(1.0 × 10^6) = 1,496,450.92 metric tons of CO2 saved

The result is that almost 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 have been prevented through the iTunes online store.

There is of course a lot of room for error in these calculations and the efficiency of both delivery methods are constantly changing. The official report tried to account for other downloading options such as and addresses the difficulty of assessing subscription based downloading services.

Even given a large margin of error, the study found that online downloads are greener than going to the CD store.

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