Written by Pete Armitage
The ‘second wave’ of vinyl appreciation has been heartwarming for traditionalists young and old. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reported a total revenue of $224 million from vinyl sales in the USA in the first half of 2019, a 13% increase on 2018 figures.
Indeed, playing strictly vinyl has come to be considered somewhat of a hallmark of integrity among DJs, and vinyl-only labels host some of the best music out there. There’s something authentic about owning physical music, and the crude compression of mp3 and wav just don’t cut the mustard for many discerning ears.
However, despite the perks, there are several major cons to consider before you invest further in everyone’s favourite listening format:
That moment when the postman finally delivers the Drexciya wax you ordered three weeks ago from an obscure Montreal Discogs dealer is always magical. Often though, we’re far too immersed in excitement to consider the ridiculous physical journey that the record made. The logistical operation of intercontinental transportation of vinyl to your doorstep is complicated and often involves both road and air travel - a difficult voyage to justify for music that can often be bought online in digital format.
The figures speak for themselves.
Check out DHL’s carbon footprint calculator for the lowdown (if it actually works, I had trouble. To be honest it stinks of greenwashing)
‘Vinyl’ is actually a shortening of ‘polyvinyl chloride’, the official name for the plastic polymer used to create records alongside countless other familiar household items such as raincoats, food packaging and upholstery. Over 40 million tonnes of PVC are produced every year, mostly in China using fossil fuels like crude oil and natural gas. AKA our most scarce natural resources, whose extraction and distribution destroys the habitats of countless endangered species of animals.
The actual synthesis of PVC has dire consequences for the environment too. During the manufacture of its building block ingredients such as the vinyl chloride monomer, dioxins are released into the atmosphere. Read more about these nasties on this World Health Orginsation factsheet. Exposure to dioxins is linked to impairment of the immune system and altered liver function.
Chemicals called ‘phthalates’ are also used in the PVC manufacturing process as a softening agent. Over time they can leach out of the plastic into our food and water supply, and exposure is linked to pregnancy loss, gestational diabetes and kidney problems.
Plastics are bad for our health and the environment, full stop. But greenpeace actually identifies PVC as the most harmful of all, going as far as coining it ‘the poison plastic.’
A whopping 57% of PVC is composed of chlorine, the noxious halogen gas behind many of our biggest environmental problems; DDT, CFCs (and the loss of the ozone layer). It accumulates in carnivores (such as humans) in the form of organochlorines, which are impossible to expel from our bodies, instead bioaccumulating and leading to a myriad of health problems such as cancer and infertility.
Adding further insult to injury is the release of hydrogen chloride gas when PVC is heated. The vast majority of PVC is actually used in construction, and fire experts claim that many who get trapped in house fires actually perish due to exposure to deadly hydrogen chloride gas released by burning PVC alongside the previously mentioned dioxins. Not nice.
In 2018, over 4 million new vinyl LPs were purchased in the UK alone. At an average weight of 150gm, that equates to over 600 tonnes of plastic. That’s already a shocking figure, then consider that PVC is very difficult to recycle. Recycling companies are just not willing to take a gamble on melting it down for the above reasons. Most of it will end up in landfills sooner or later unless new technology is developed to process it.
(Note: the very small number of companies in Germany that may consider recycling your vinyl can be found here -https://www.pvcrecyclingfinder.de/en/pvc-recycling-finder/)
- All that packaging
Further sealing the deal of vinyl records contradicting environmentalism is all the cardboard and shrink wrap involved. We’re careful to reduce the copious amounts of unnecessary packaging used when we shop for food - surely this attitude ought to be adopted when we’re shopping for music too?
The whole culture of buying and playing vinyl is exceptionally expensive compared to digital and is essentially the preserve of the privileged, with disposable income to throw around. DJ mag published a fantastic article on this topic interviewing 22-year old NYC aspiring DJ Arnav Luthra who was frank on the exclusivity of vinyl, ‘“The high cost of entry into doing any sort of vinyl practice, whether that be DJing or just collecting, makes it really difficult for people in tougher economic situations. To me, this is really upsetting, because what I really love about this scene is the inclusively of it, especially for queer people and people of colour.’
Vinyl-only releases mean limited stock, and limited availability often only in a handful of record stores. For many DJs and selectors, tracking down obscure wax means international air travel. In the words of Berlin producer Julius Kopf, ‘...I play a lot of UK funky and garage records. If I really want to crate-dig this genre and get the freshest/rarest stuff I have to fly over to London to visit Zen records.’
Perhaps we just spend our money on bandcamp instead? There are few justifications for investing in vinyl instead. Bandcamp allows artists to keep a far greater chunk of the purchase price, and the carbon footprint is significantly less.
In conclusion, the environmental impact of buying vinyl is far greater than what one might imagine. When we consider the readily available alternative of digital, we really have no excuse to continue investing in physical records.
Although vinyl records are a relatively insignificant use of plastic compared to PVC usage for other applications, we really ought to lead by example in a scene which often touts itself as progressive.
If vinyl is to be used, consider offsetting the carbon footprint elsewhere, i.e. by using a green power provider for your home (if available) or solar panels. Buy only used records. And if you’re a producer, consider digital-only releases as an option.