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Why vinyl’s resurgence is hurting the planet

Vinyl sales have now overtaken CDs for the first time since the 1980s, but we need to talk more about the environmental damage of its recent resurgence.

New figures released by the Record Industry Association of America indicate that vinyl sales have now overtaken CDs for the first time since the early 1980s. According to a new report released this week, vinyl sales generated $232 million and made up 62% of all physical recorded music sales in the first half of 2020.

It’s a similar picture in the UK, where vinyl sales rose exponentially throughout the 2010s, jumping up by 4.1% in 2019. Over 4.3 million LPs were sold last year, the biggest total this century so far. Cassette tapes also hit a fifteen year high with over 80,000 sold.

Physical music products appear to be back for the long haul across the US and UK, and while this is good news for independent stores and retail chains, it’s having a serious impact on the environment.

Why is it such a bad product for the environment?

Sustainability in music is becoming an ever more concerning issue as consumer demand for plastic and vinyl goods grows. For one, the materials and processes used to create vinyl are outdated and clunky. Your grandad’s dusty old collection in the attic was manufactured in the exact same way as your Kendrick Lamar record – with fossil fuels, carbon black colouring, and heavy amounts of ink and cardboard.

Many of the factories used for mass vinyl production haven’t been updated since the 1970s and use energy-inefficient, steam powered machines. Vinyl’s are made from PVC, which is polyvinyl chloride that’s partly produced from fossil fuels and doesn’t decompose for centuries. If all that wasn’t bad enough, new records produced this century are created with several toxic additives, and some still use lead as a stabiliser during the pressing process.

Keep in mind that this is all just for the actual record itself, and doesn’t factor in the transport cost, the plastic shrink wrap packaging, sleeve, printed covers and labels, or the shipping. Put everything together and you’ve basically got a miniature bomb of a carbon footprint, all for the sake of one album or single.

Of course, vinyl isn’t the absolute worst product for the environment. We tend to keep hold of them for many, many years after initially being purchased. You’re less likely to find tons of records in landfill compared to the millions of plastic bottles Coca Cola produces. What makes this a difficult issue is that the music industry doesn’t face the same daily scrutiny as agriculture or, say, fashion. Very few people really think of their carbon footprint when listening to records – but it’s just as important.

What can you do to improve your musical carbon footprint?

Frustratingly, the answer isn’t necessarily as simple as switching entirely to streaming and calling it a day. Recent research suggests that MP3s and digital music have actually increased our carbon emissions to higher levels than before Spotify was even a thing. Combine this with a growing physical demand for music and it really starts to look bad.

Platforms like Spotify require huge servers that need to be kept cool and running that big of a database can suck up significant amounts of power. Our escalating dependency on servers for nearly everything is a worrying issue for the future and streaming is a big part of the problem.

One song streamed through a hi-fi system uses roughly three times the amount of kilowatt hours of electricity as a CD play, so while a stream doesn’t require materials, the electrical consumption needed can quickly add up.

The best answer on how to be as green as possible with music depends on how you listen. If you’re an obsessive fan of certain singles or albums, then purchasing a CD is the best option, as these have a singular carbon cost via production and have a lower subsequent kilowatt demand. Those who tend to flick between songs and singles quickly should pick streaming, as this will have less of an impact than buying lots of songs physically. The only one that’s never a good option is vinyl.

If you absolutely must buy vinyl however, there are some emerging sustainable printing companies that emphasise cleaner production processes. Green Vinyl Records is a collection of eight different businesses that use injecting moulding instead of traditional steam-fuelled pressing and replace regular PVC with a more degradable plastic.

Vinyl’s resurrection is great news for the arts and for local music sellers, but it’s a worrying trend for the environment. We’re not slowing down our streaming plays to compensate for a new interest in vinyl either – instead, the carbon footprint for music listening is ballooning. If you want to help out, the first and most simple thing you can do is avoid buying vinyl wherever you can.

So why not ask gramps for that attic box and see if he has any hidden treasures? The cost of re-using a vintage vinyl is as close to zero as you can get.