- PVC—used to make vinyl records—is the most environmentally damaging of all plastics.
- A new process uses recyclable PET to make records.
- PET should sound just as good as old-school vinyl.
The dirty secret of the vinyl resurgence is just that—it's dirty, but a new green alternative could open up its future.
There are two problems with record production right now. One is that the capacity for making it cannot keep up with demand. The other is that pressing vinyl, or PVC, records requires a lot of energy and uses some pretty nasty chemicals. Now, a Dutch company is pressing records out of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), not PVC. PET is a greener, more durable plastic that is easily recyclable, but will the audiophiles accept it?
"As someone who wants to do a physical release but who also can't stomach the environmental impact of traditional vinyl, this is a step in the right direction," musician mOld aka Juniper Wave told Lifewire in a music forum thread.
The name vinyl comes from Polyvinyl Chloride, and it's nasty stuff. "[O]ne plastic stands alone: PVC, throughout its lifecycle, is the most environmentally damaging of all plastics," says Greenpeace, before listing its effects on humans—cancer, immune system damage, and hormone disruption—and on our environment, where its chlorine-based toxins are "one of the biggest contributors to the flood of toxic substances saturating our planet."
Then there's the production process, which uses a steam press to stamp out the disks, and is energy-intensive, although perhaps no worse than many industrial processes.
Green Vinyl Records, from Dutch manufacturing company Symcon, changes that. It uses PET (the recyclable stuff that water bottles are made from) and a new process to reduce the whole-cycle energy requirements of pressing records by 90%. This includes using electricity to heat the water of the steam press instead of burning natural gas.
"Pressing records out of PET is definitely more environmentally friendly and sustainable. PET is widely used for numerous applications such as clothing fibers, liquid and food containers, and many more. Because PET is generally used in its pure form, recycling used PET is widely practiced and also economically competitive. In contrast, PVC is one of the most difficult polymers to recycle." Sangwoo Lee, associate professor at the Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told Lifewire via email.
But that's not the whole story. People who buy records do it for quite emotional reasons. The look and feel of the record, the sleeve, the album art, the beautiful non-digital machines that play them. And then there's vinyl's particular sound.
Depending on your point of view, vinyl may not sound better than CDs and other digital media, but it does sound different. Its warmth, for example. Vinyl doesn't cope well with deep bass. It can cause the needle to literally jump out of the groove, so the bass is typically reduced when music is mastered (equalized) for vinyl, and then bass is added back in when you play it.
A song is mastered differently for different media. Digital is easy. Vinyl needs special care. And because it is a delicate, analog operation, it's possible that changing the process could change the sound. And there's nothing that purists hate more than change.
Speaking to Attack Magazine, Symcon and Green Vinyl Records owner Harm Theunisse says that the result of his PET process is equal to vinyl in terms of sound. And Professor Lee, our chemical engineering scientist, agrees.
"As a polymer scientist and also a frugal audiophile, I do not see any reason that PET records perform less than PVC ones because the key physical properties of PET and PVC for pressed records are also very similar. PET records are just equivalent to PVC ones but with a more sustainable future belongs to polyesters," says Lee.
All that remains is for this method to become more widespread. The vinyl resurgence is established and is far from a fad. It's time for record companies to open up their own record-pressing plants again, using PET instead of vinyl. There are other supply problems—notably the fact that one person in Japan makes the lacquer required to make the master disks for pressing.
But fixing the shameful environmental aspect of records is a huge step forward. And with the massive energy costs of the servers behind music streaming, maybe records could become the greenest option?