There’s no denying that being aware of and trying to reduce our impact on the environment is becoming more and more important in all areas of our life, from the food we eat to the cars we drive. But have you thought about the environmental impact of your music listening habits? While it is by no means the biggest issue to tackle in terms of the climate, both in the bigger picture and within the music industry, listening to music on vinyl or CD, or using a streaming platform each have a significant carbon footprint. I’m not suggesting we should all completely stop listening to music or that I have any idea what the solution might be, but I think it’s important to consider the environmental impact of the things we do without thinking, day in day out.
I’ll begin by looking at the environmental impact of vinyl records compared to that of CDs. In 2020, vinyl outsold CDs for the first time in over 30 years, with people’s lockdown buying habits contributing to the revival of records as a “trendy” way of listening to music. Vinyl records are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is one of the world’s most widely produced and used synthetic plastic polymers, and CDs are made of polycarbonate plastic. Research has shown that producing vinyl records uses twice as much plastic as CDs: a vinyl record requires 120g and a CD requires 58g. This means that the estimated carbon footprint of a vinyl record is over 12 times that of a CD, with a single record producing 2.2kg of greenhouse gas emissions, and a CD producing 172g. And for anyone interested in the impact of cassette tapes, a single cassette uses 79g of plastic and produces 2.8kg of greenhouse gas emissions.
Now let’s bring music streaming into the equation. Data shows that 487 million people worldwide were subscribed to music streaming platforms at the start of 2021. On a per-unit basis, the carbon footprint of streaming is much lower than that of any physical format. Estimates suggest that an hour of media streaming produces around 55g of emissions, so compared to that a CD’s emissions are three times that of streaming, and vinyl’s emissions are 40 times bigger. So, everyone should just stream their music, right? Sadly, the huge growth in music consumption, and particularly music streaming, means these emissions savings are essentially cancelled out.
We can stream music in seconds, with just a few taps. This makes it very easy to avoid thinking about how the process works, or what environmental impact it might have, as convenience is often the most important factor for many people. If your music is ‘in the cloud’, as it were, surely it can’t be harming the environment? There are many stages to music streaming, and each one requires energy. Across the world server farms contain hard drives that store data, including the contents of music streaming platforms. It takes a very large amount of energy to power and cool these hard drives, and also a lot of resources. In order for you to stream a song, data has to be transmitted from a server farm to a more local access network by cables underground and under the sea, which also requires energy. Once the data is local to you, it is cached at a more local server to reduce errors and lags in case you want to stream the song again. When the song reaches your phone/tablet/laptop, it relies on a WiFi or other internet connection, as well as your device being charged - even more energy needed. So while this process is not tangible like that of manufacturing vinyl or CDs, there is still a huge energy demand. The carbon required to stream a song differs depending on factors such as the streaming quality, whether you’re watching a YouTube video as well as listening to the audio, and the device used to stream. The environmental effect also varies depending on where in the world your stream is coming from, and what sort of power that country relies on.
In a 2019 article, Sharon George, Lecturer in Environmental Science at Keele University, and Deirdre McKay, Reader in Geography and Environmental Politics at Keele University, shared their calculation that streaming an album more than 27 times will likely use more energy than it takes to produce and manufacture the same CD, so it would be better for the environment to buy that album on CD rather than to stream it. In 2021, they revised that calculation, using updated numbers on carbon reporting figures for plastic for both a CD and its case, and for media streaming. This led them to conclude that streaming an album for just five hours is equal in terms of carbon emissions to the plastic used to produce a CD, and streaming for 17 hours is equal to the carbon emissions of a vinyl record. These estimates don’t include the energy used to power the machine that manufactures CDs or vinyl, the plastic used to package them for delivery, the air or road miles used in transportation, or the electricity required to power a CD player or turntable.
It’s very difficult to get a complete picture of the true environmental impact of these different ways of listening to music. As I mentioned above, streaming music also requires a device from which to stream. Similarly, to play a record or CD you need a turntable or CD player. Each of these will have its own carbon emissions and resources used in production and distribution, which would have to be factored in. To go really in depth, we’d have to include the emissions from the recording studios, and from making the musical instruments actually used in recordings.
In conclusion, everything we do is destroying the planet! I have to admit that I wrote this article listening to music on Spotify on my phone, and my environmental guilt increased with every statistic I read. It can be quite overwhelming to be faced with all these facts and numbers, but I think the main takeaway is to be mindful of what we are doing and consider whether an alternative would be more environmentally friendly. If you are going to listen to a particular album lots of times, buying the CD or downloading the album to a local hard drive is more energy efficient. As more and more countries and companies around the world move towards using renewable energy, music streaming could become the most environmentally friendly option. Another important thing is to sell or donate your old CDs and vinyl records, rather than just throwing them away. Also, remember that nobody’s perfect; a small effort to reduce your impact on the environment is better than no effort, and what’s most important is governments and big corporations making significant changes.