How the Physical Distribution of Digital Goods Impacts the Environment

Written by James Brentano, Vice President of Sales for Intraware

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), every month in the United States some 100,000 pounds of CDs become outdated, useless or unwanted. Every year, more than 5.5 million software packages go to landfills and incinerators.

CDs and DVDs are made from materials including polycarbonate plastic, petroleum-based lacquer and paints, aluminum and other metals. These materials release chemicals that contribute to environmental and health problems as well as global warming, both when they are produced and when they are destroyed.

The chemical used in jewel cases, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), is especially damaging to the environment. It often contains a variety of additives, including lead, making it is the least recyclable, and least recycled, of the major plastics. The EPA estimates that less than one percent of post-consumer PVC is recovered or reprocessed. That means the remaining 99% either ends up in landfills or is incinerated, a process that releases damaging dioxins into the air.

Eliminating the physical distribution of digital goods is an excellent way for companies in many industries to reduce their impact on the environment. The impact is twofold; locally (smog, landfill, etc.) and globally (green house gas emissions).

The Numbers

It is difficult to place an exact estimate on the total environmental impact of an individual CD. In relation to just greenhouse gases, one study estimates an impact of 1 kilogram of carbon dioxide equivalents for each music CD produced, packaged and delivered. About half of this comes from the production of the CD and half from transportation. Another study, which focused on alternative approaches to music reproduction and distribution, estimated a net difference of approximately one 1 kilogram of greenhouse emissions between physical and electronic distribution (assuming that the electronic media isn’t simply burned onto a CD by the recipient).

Another approach, used by Carnegie Mellon, estimates the environmental impact of physical software reproduction based on economic output. According to this method, every $100,000 spent on commercial software reproduction creates the global warming potential of approximately 29 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents as well as 38 kilograms of toxic waste. This estimate does not include related materials such as printed manuals, nor does it include the impact of shipping, etc. required for distribution. There is no reason to assume that in-house software reproduction would have a lower environmental impact, and in fact, would likely be higher due to less efficiency in shipping, batch processing, etc.

Although manuals and other printed materials are more readily recycled than CDs and DVDs, they also cause significant environmental impact. In its Higher Education Supplement, the Times of London reported that an average paperback book has used “4.5kWh of energy by the time it gets to a reader. In terms of climate impact, this is equivalent to about 3kg of carbon dioxide emissions.” Software manuals can be expected to have a similar impact.


Simply put, delivering the same digital goods electronically rather than physically dramatically lowers the environmental impact. For example, even a study by an organization that manufactures over 400 million music CDs a year found that digital distribution would save over 0.9 kilograms in abiotic emissions per CD, net of the impact of the computer and telecommunication resources to deliver it.

For software companies the effect can be even more dramatic. Typically, the majority of software distribution relates to ongoing product updates, rather than new orders. Historically, this distribution is delivered in a “push” mode rather than an “on request” scenario. In order to fulfill the maintenance agreements in place with their customers, software companies are required to ship an upgrade when it becomes available.

With the introduction of electronic delivery and management, however, the software is now always available. The consumer only downloads the product updates or other releases when needed, making the savings over shipping a physical CD/DVD even greater. When you add the impact of the associated documentation and that many software titles span multiple CD’s, it is not unreasonable to assume a net reduction of several kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions for each shipment that is diverted from physical to electronic delivery.


CD’s and DVD’s are used to deliver a wide range of electronic content. While not all segments of the economy may yet be ready for electronic delivery, both the business to business and the software markets are. Publishers and vendors in these markets can and should lessen their impact on the environment by moving to “green” electronic distribution.

A midsized software company that ships 100,000 CDs and their associated documentation a year could eliminate several hundred metric tons of green house gas emissions by switching from physical to electronic delivery. That’s good for the environment and good for peace of mind. There is an ever increasing awareness by government and large organizations of the need to reduce polluting practices. It may be that electronic software delivery becomes a key requirement that helps drive software product selection in the future.