- Vinyl records use petrochemicals and require a lot of energy to press and ship.
- Music streaming has a bigger carbon footprint.
- CDs might be physical, but they’re still digital, and they’re still not cool.
Vinyl is environmentally problematic, and manufacturing shortages make it hard to create enough. CDs could fix this.
Ableton co-founder Robert Henke says we should reconsider CDs as an alternative to vinyl, citing vinyl's difficult relationship with today's environmental concerns. But is vinyl really that bad? And when it comes to our reasons for buying records and playing them on a nice turntable, isn't Henke kind of missing the point?
"I still love physical products. But manufacturing big heavy plates of plastic and [having] them shipped around the globe is a huge waste of energy and resources," says Henke in a Facebook post. "In times of global warming and dependency on cheap energy from the likes of Russia or Saudi Arabia, I consider not doing any releases on vinyl anymore, but fully embrace CDs."
Henke’s argument rests on the environmental concerns of vinyl, and he’s got a point. Vinyl is made from plastic polyvinyl chloride, aka PVC, which comes from petrochemicals. Vinyl record manufacturing can create an order of magnitude more emissions than other physical media, like CDs.
But some record-pressing companies are cleaning things up. It’s possible to reuse vinyl, melting down records and re-pressing them, which is what Virginia’s Furnace Record Pressing does with its rejects. And new vinyl pressing plants, like Jack White’s Third Man Pressing factory, can be designed in line with modern environmental norms, like reusing cooling water in the air-conditioning systems.
But none of this really matters. First, vinyl might be in the midst of an ongoing resurgence, but it's still a tiny market compared to pretty much any other consumer tech. Think of the environmental effects of the batteries in every gadget we use, for starters.
"Emphasis on vinyl's unsustainability is a red herring given the unsustainable nature of so much of human activity in far greater numbers than vinyl produces," electronic musician Zane Lazos (posting as Tanburi) told Lifewire in a forum post. "It sounds like CDs still don't have the archival potential of vinyl either. Far more important is making mobile phones sustainable."
Vinyl manufacturing might be dirty, but its scale means its overall impact is small. Records also last forever, and fans don't need to upgrade their turntables every few years because the technology is mature. And there's also a healthy used market for buying and trading records.
"Well-stored magnetic tape is going to fare better than a CD, in some cases, but vinyl will outlast them both," Jason Klamm, host of the Comedy on Vinyl podcast and curator of the Comedy Archive, told Lifewire via email.
Streaming Is Worse
And guess what? Streaming music without any of the oil extraction, heating, pressing, and shipping of vinyl, is way worse for the environment. A 2019 study from the University of Glasgow showed that streaming music has a higher impact on the environment than physical media, thanks to the energy costs of storing and streaming music, which includes the impact of data centers.
And vinyl has a fixed environmental cost. We can ignore the electricity used by the speakers, etc., as you need those for any music source. The amount of carbon generated in making and shipping vinyl is the same as that generated by streaming an album only a handful of times. That is, once you’ve listened to a record a few times, further listens are essentially free, in carbon terms.
CDs Just Aren’t As Cool
Henke likes CDs and realizes they're technologically superior in many ways. "The last big physical media innovation, with a better signal to noise ratio, better channel separation, better frequency response than vinyl in a smaller package Compact Disk, you are underrated, and you will always have a place in my heart," he says in his Facebook post.
But we don't buy vinyl for any of those reasons. We like it because it's analog in a digital age. Turntables are fun to use, records are cool, and record sleeves, with their relatively huge space for artwork, are even cooler. Yes, vinyl sounds great, but there's a lot more to it than that. Meanwhile, CDs are digital, exactly the same as a file on a computer. You might as well store them on an old iPod.
It sounds like CDs still don’t have the archival potential of vinyl either.
"[M]any people appreciate the tactile experience of holding and playing a record or cassette," digital streaming expert Sakina Nasir of Streaming Digitally told Lifewire via email. "Another big reason is that collectability factor. Vinyl and cassettes are seen as more personal and unique."
Vinyl could definitely clean up its act, but in the end, there really is no replacement, whether that's cassettes, CDs, or Spotify. And it will probably outlast them all.