Just Go Digital: The Environmental Case Against The Physical Sales Of Music

If you are a music fan and concerned about the environment, it’s time to move on from vinyl LPs, CDs, and cassettes and just go digital!

The Environmental Case Against The Physical Sales Of Music: Just Go Digital

I remember seeing my first rack of CDs at a Wherehouse Records store during the mid 80’s. Like many, I was put off by the excess packaging, which included a large plastic outer shell about 16″ long. Environmentalism wasn’t big in the 80’s and global warming wasn’t even a thing yet. Still, even by 80’s standards, CDs just screamed ‘whatafugginwaste!!’.

And so it began for the CD and its public perception as an environmental curse upon humanity. Which is kinda true, by the way. Though mostly recyclable, CDs are not biodegradable and consist of 75% plastic and 25% other items such as aluminum.

But is it really fair to single out CDs when all other forms of physical music are just as bad or worse for the environment? Alternatives to CDs, primarily vinyl LPs and cassette tapes, each pose environmental hazards in their own right.

If global warming and the size of ones carbon footprint are important enough to sacrifice for, then is time to move on from the physical sales of music altogether: no vinyl LPs, CDs, nor cassettes. It’s easy. Just go digital. At the end of the day, digital is the only environmentally responsible way to buy and sell music.

The Environmental Case Against The Physical Sales Of Music: Just Go DigitalMaking Music: Bigger Is Not Better

There are two processes that are important to take into account when considering the environmental impact of a music medium: what goes into its production and how it is disposed.

Regarding the production side, vinyl LPs are by far and away the most environmentally hazardous. This is not because LPs are qualitatively worse for the environment than CDs or cassettes. They aren’t. All music mediums are bad for the environment. It is because LPs are significantly larger than CDs or cassettes.

Differences In Kind

CDs and cassettes consist mostly of polycarbonate plastic. This plastic is produced from a chemical reaction between bisphenol A (BPA) and phosgene. Bisphenol A consists of acetate, phenol, and hydrochloric acid. Phosgene, used as a chemical weapon in WWI, consists of carbon monoxide and chlorine. Both bisphenol A and phosgene are toxic and produce greenhouse gasses when used in production.

The manufacture of vinyl LPs is just as bad for the environment. The vinyl in LPs is made from PVC (polyvinylchlorinate). PVC consists of approximately 57% chlorine and 43% crude oil and its manufacture also produces greenhouse gasses. LPs are also wrapped in paper, layers upon layers of paper to be precise.

Oh! And for all three of these, don’t forget the shrink wrap!

It’s The Size That Counts

Really, there is no environmentally sound physical music medium. That being said, vinyl LPs are far worse than CDs and cassettes because of their size. A typical cassette tape weighs about 2.5 ounces with packaging, while a jewel box CD with insert weighs about 3 ounces. By contrast, just the vinyl portion of a 180 gram LP weighs 6.3 ounces, more than double the total weight of CDs or cassettes with their packaging included. If you add to the LP the weight of the sleeves,  jacket, gatefold, or any of the other packaging, your likely looking at 3 to 4 times the mass of a CD or cassette or more.

From a production stand point,  no matter what medium you choose to buy or sell, it’s not an environmentally friendly decision. But certainly the larger the packaging, the worse the environmental impact. That means that LPs are significantly worse than CDs or cassettes for the environment from the perspective of production.

The Environmental Case Against The Physical Sales Of Music: Just Go Digital

At the end of the day, there is only one environmentally responsible way to buy and sell music: digitally

Discarding Music: Recycle Or Else!

Neither CDs, vinyl LPs or audio cassettes are biodegradable. This means that if they go to landfill, they stay in landfill, pretty much forever. Same if they wind up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean or on your uncle Tommy’s roof: if that’s where it lays, that’s where it stays, permanently.

But, LPs, CDs, and cassettes are all recyclable to varying degrees. And the degree to which they are recyclable determines how much landfill waste they produce.

Recycling CDs and Cassettes

When CDs are recycled, the 75% of the disc that’s made of plastic is reused and the remaining 25% of materials are sent to landfill. CD inserts and jewel boxes are also recyclable and weigh about three times as much as the disc (.70 ounces to 2.3 ounces). So this means approximately 90% to 95% of a CD package is recyclable, 5% to 10% is not. If we use the average of three ounces per copy as our guide, every CD produces between about .15 to .30 of an ounce of landfill per unit. One thousand CDs therefore produce approximately 9 to 20 pounds of landfill.

Cassette tape shells and cases are also made of polycarbonate, type 7 plastic and therefore recyclable, as are cassette inserts. But, the magnetic tape inside is NOT recyclable and must be taken to landfill. That tape can take up to 20% to 30% of the mass of a cassette, which means that only 70% to 80% of a cassette is recyclable, less than CDs. With an average weight of 2.5 ounces, a single cassette produces between .50 to .75 ounces of landfill. One thousand cassettes therefore creates between 30 and 45 pounds of landfill.

Recycling Vinyl

Vinyl albums and their packaging are almost entirely recyclable. The inserts and jacket are usually made from paper and PVC is a type 3 plastic. The problem is finding a company to recycle them. Unlike CDs or cassettes, it’s possible that your local recycling agency won’t take your vinyl LPs. And even if they do, they may send them to landfill anyway.  Er go, the recyclability of vinyl really depends on where you live. By the way, if you can’t recycle them, one thousand records produces between 400 and 600 pounds of landfill!! Arrrrrgh!!!

Although these music mediums are all recyclable to varying degrees, the truth is that most LPs, CDs, and cassettes do wind up in landfill. Furthermore, the effectiveness of recycling depends on whether or not manufacturers are using recycled plastic. Currently there is no evidence that music manufacturers are using recycled plastic to any significant degree.

The Environmental Case Against The Physical Sales Of Music: Just Go Digital

Bottom Line: If You Love Music And Care About The Environment, Just Go Digital

So, to music enthusiasts of all walks of life, the message is clear and simple. If you are a music fan and concerned about the environment, it’s time to move on from vinyl LPs, CDs, and cassettes. Just go digital.

Yes, I’ve heard it all before, ‘But LPs are sooooo cool!’ or ‘But I really prefer using my CDs’ or ‘I don’t buy that many to make a difference’. First off, close to a billion CDs, cassettes, and LPs are produced globally each year. Second, if global warming is real and the size of our carbon footprint is something we should be concerned about, we have to continue to sacrifice what we want to do for what we have to do. And if people are going to chastise SUV drivers, styrofoam cup users and others for not being ecologically minded enough, shouldn’t producers, sellers, and consumers of physical music also be held to the same standard?

It’s easy to knock others for doing something we don’t approve of, but much more difficult to use the same level of scrutiny upon ourselves. Going digital is an easy sacrifice to make for the environment. Just do it. Just go digital.