Ask any music hobbyist whether they prefer CDs or vinyl records, and you will likely be given a number of reasons for their format of choice related to sound quality, aesthetics, and collectability. Some people may purchase music on only one type of format, while others buy both. However, when it comes to the environment, a new set of questions arise.
The first music records produced were less damaging to the environment than the ones we are familiar with today. Shellac, a sticky natural resin secreted by the female Kerria lacca insect, was the material used to produce gramophone records (George, S., & McKay, D., 2019). However, the beginning of World War II changed this. The US War Production Board, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, called for a 70% reduction in the production of new records (Gray’s Auctioneers, 2021). This was because shellac was also used to produce war materials, such as signal flares, explosives, and shell coating for artillery. Americans were also encouraged to donate broken and outdated records so they could be recycled into weapons or given to soldiers as a means of boosting troop morale (Gray’s Auctioneers, 2021).
As records created from shellac were phased out, ones made out of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) resin gained popularity, in part because of their superior durability. PVC can be found in other everyday items, such as pipes and credit cards. When records are produced, PVC comes in the form of pellets, which are then heated, stamped, and pressed into the circular “record shape” music-lovers are familiar with (Parmenter, 2021).
Shellac records were vulnerable to damage from liquids. They were also more breakable. In contrast, vinyl records were more physically resistant to damage. This made the switch to vinyl more attractive. Vinyl records can also contain more songs than shellac records, another point in PVC’s favor. Soon, PVC resin became the foundation for the vinyl records that we know today.
An alternative to vinyl records, the music CD, first became available for buyers in 1982. CDs are a digital storage medium and are more transportable than records, since they can be played with a portable CD player. CDs are also less likely to skip or encounter other playback errors than records. They are easy to store, care for, and transport. Because of these advantages, CDs rapidly became the most popular medium for recorded music.
However, vinyl records have made a comeback over the last 15 years. Since 2007, there has been a 1,427% sales increase of vinyl, which comes out to approximately four million LPs in 2018 in the UK (George, S., & McKay, D., 2019). This increased demand is reflected in other countries as well. Music-lovers are purchasing vinyl for many reasons. There is a developing demand for owning physical media rather than digital media. People enjoy collecting records for the nostalgia factor and the cool, retro look that rows of vinyl records can add to your shelves. There are people who enjoy the unique sound of vinyl records, saying that vinyl produces a “warmer” sound while more modern formats sound digital and artificial.
Unfortunately, vinyl poses a significant threat to the health of the environment and human lives. Unlike records produced from shellac, vinyl records are derived from fossil fuels, meaning that this material has a higher carbon footprint than shellac. A higher carbon footprint means that there is a larger total amount of greenhouse gases produced directly and indirectly to create vinyl records than with shellac records. The black color used in many records is also not good for the environment, since it comes from carbon.
Modern-day records are estimated to contain approximately 135 grams of PVC with a carbon footprint totaling to 0.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide (George, S., & McKay, D., 2019). When additional factors are considered, such as packaging and transport, the amount of carbon dioxide per record is even larger.
PVC’s durability means that it is harder to break down when it ends up in landfills. According to one source, “Scientifically speaking, this would take around 1,000 years to decompose” (Parmenter, 2021). Landfill sites have varying environmental conditions, such as oil acidity and temperature. Depending on the conditions of a particular landfill site, this can cause PVC to leak plasticizers, the substances added to synthetic resins in order to strengthen them and increase their flexibility. The chemicals leached by the records can spread into groundwater, soil, and air, potentially posing a threat to the people and wildlife exposed to them. The presence of vinyl records in a landfill can therefore be a source of pollution in the environment.
PVC also releases the chemical compound vinyl chloride. Exposure to vinyl chloride is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, such as hepatic angiosarcoma (a rare form of liver cancer), lung cancer, brain cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma (National Cancer Institute, 2018).
Although CDs are more convenient for most music-lovers, this technology has its own environmental drawbacks. CDs are produced from layered polycarbonate and aluminum (Owsinski, 2019). Polycarbonate is a synthetic plastic and aluminum is a metal. Because CDs are a mixture of metal and plastic, recycling them is more difficult. This means that they are often improperly discarded and become a source of pollution.
CDs are also viewed as being more disposable than vinyl records. Even after records are no longer usable, many people repurpose them into displayable artwork, such as framing them or turning them into wall clocks. When people no longer find use for a CD, it usually ends up in a landfill.
When it comes to comparing the packaging of vinyl records and CDs, records come in more carbon-neutral packaging since the packaging consists of cardboard and paper. In contrast, CDs often come in plastic trays and jewel cases. The polycarbonate cases are fragile and are not widely recycled. They can be damaged and end up in landfills when the owner no longer wants them. Although the packaging for CDs is less environmentally-friendly, records are heavier than CDs, which means that the transport of records leaves a bigger carbon footprint behind than that of CDs.
Ultimately, it is up to each individual consumer to decide which format best suits their needs. Which format do you have the equipment to play, and which do you see yourself listening to more often? These are important questions to consider in order to prevent your purchase from being a waste.
To avoid further damaging the environment, there are some steps you can take.
- Instead of buying new records and CDs, look into purchasing ones that are pre-owned but still in working condition. These can be found in places such as secondhand shops and online marketplaces. This is especially true for records, where an older, vintage version of the record may contain less environmentally-damaging materials than a newer version.
- It is important to keep in mind that vinyl records produce hazardous byproducts if burned or disposed of improperly. See if you can pass your old records on to someone who may want them, such as friends, family members, or a charity shop.
- As for CDs, there are some companies, such as The CD Recycling Center of America, that can help you with recycling your old CDs.
- There is also the option of selling your old records and CDs online to people who may be interested in purchasing them and adding them to their own collections.
In summary, both vinyl records and CDs can have environmental drawbacks. However, by being a responsible consumer of music and recycling or correctly disposing of records and CDs you no longer need, you can help minimize your carbon footprint.
The Evolution of Records: From Shellac to Vinyl. (2021, March 9). Gray’s Auctioneers. https://www.graysauctioneers.com/blog-posts/2019/1/31/evolution-records-shellac-vinyl
George, S., & McKay, D. (2019, February 18). How Streaming Music Could Be Harming the Planet. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190207-why-streaming-music-may-be-bad-for-climate-change
Owsinski, B. (2019, February 19). The Environmental Impact of Various Music Formats Will Surprise You. Bobby Owsinski’s Music Production Blog. https://bobbyowsinskiblog. com/2019/02/19/music-environmental-impact/
Parmenter, J. (2021, January 29). How Long Do Vinyl Records Last? Vinyl Chapters. https://www.vinylchapters.com/how-long-do-vinyl-records-last/
Vinyl Chloride – Cancer-Causing Substances. (2018, December 28). National Cancer Institute. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/vinyl-chloride