By Julie Landers, Staff Writer
I didn’t enjoy writing this article, and you’re probably not going to enjoy reading it.
Before deciding to write about the environmental impacts of music consumption, it was far easier to say ‘streaming good, vinyl bad’, and even then that wasn’t easy at all. I love the acts of collecting and listening to music, be that looking through Bandcamp Daily or scouring through stacks of vinyl to find something that stands out to me. But I never quite took the time to consider how these acts had a wider impact.
Certainly, it is easy to point out the negative impacts of vinyl records. The granulate (which is melted down to make vinyl records) is based on heavy metal stabilisers, such as lead and cadmium. The granulate itself is primarily made of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), which contains carcinogenic chemicals and is, according to Greenpeace, the most environmentally-damaging plastic. The plants where PVC is produced release huge amounts of toxic materials into the environment surrounding them.
Beyond the record itself, the amount of plastic packaging that is used, in addition to the impact of shipping vinyl across countries, results in significant levels of greenhouse gas emissions. As Kyle Devine, author of Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music wrote for the Guardian last year, “During the U.S. sales peaks of the LP, cassette and CD, the U.S. recording industry was using almost 60m kilos of plastic a year. Using contemporary averages on greenhouse gas equivalent releases per pound of plastic production, as well as standard weight figures for each of the formats, that is equivalent to more than 140m kilos of greenhouse gas emissions each year, in the U.S. alone. Music, like pretty much everything else, is caught up in petro-capitalism.”
Yet the digital is not totally devoid of problems either. Audio files take up physical space in data centres, which are specifically built to house computer systems and used for the remote storage, processing, and distribution of large amounts of data. This is data that we use and access daily through our phones, laptops and other devices. There is an increasing number of data centres being constructed here in Ireland as multi-billion-euro investments.
According to Devine, streaming music relies on “infrastructures of data storage, processing and transmission that have potentially higher greenhouse gas emissions than the petrochemical plastics used in the production of more obviously physical formats such as LPs – to stream music is to burn coal, uranium and gas.” Indeed, the Irish Academy of Engineering has predicted that the development of data centres will contribute at least 1.5 million tonnes to Ireland’s carbon emissions by the year 2030.
There needs to be more pressure placed on corporations to guarantee that their data centres are powered completely with renewable energy. While many companies claim that their data centres are run on 100% renewable energy, according to the grassroots campaign group Not Here Not Anywhere, this energy is “largely sourced indirectly through Renewable Energy Certificates or Purchase Power Agreements, which means that the energy is sourced from the grid, which in Ireland is reliant on 69% powered by fossil fuels. If we allow companies to virtually purchase clean energy where it is cheapest to create, while actually using and increasing demand for dirty energy here in Ireland, we allow them to profit while our real emissions continue to rise.”
There are people out there who are working towards making the process of pressing records a more environmentally friendly practice too. Deepgrooves is a vinyl pressing plant in the Netherlands that prides itself on finding new ways of pressing records that are less detrimental to our health and to the planet. They use granulates based on calcium zinc stabilizers. Deepgrooves are also working on engineering more energy-efficient machinery with which to produce their records and packaging, and they state that all of their machinery is powered using green energy that is supplied locally.
Until there is significant change, we will always fall short in how we listen to music in a responsible way. This article is a proposition rather than a doctrine. If you’re going to buy vinyl, buy it locally from independent retailers. Bring your own bag. If the cover is a little scuffed, it most likely does not affect the quality of the recording on the LP itself. Take proper care of your records and don’t even think about throwing them into the recycling bin if they get scratched or broken. They can neither be recycled or thrown into a landfill, so treat them carefully.
Truthfully there really is no ethical consumption under capitalism. There is, of course, a blurred line between where individual responsibility ends and the tremendous damage being done by major corporations begins. This line is often enforced by corporations themselves and can be incredibly racist, ableist and classist in its distinctions. As an avid consumer of music, I am still trying to find ways to consolidate the ways in which I listen to music with the knowledge of the chemicals used in making records, and the energy consumption of data centres. What I will say is that in the more immediate moment, it will always be important to support the artist behind the music, especially independent artists. That can look like buying their releases in the form of digital downloads on Bandcamp or in the form of a physical release on cassette or vinyl or CD.
As consumers we deserve honesty and enough information to develop our thoughts around how we listen to music and, more importantly, how we can go on to listen to it better.