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Dark side of the vinyl: Are records bad for the environment?

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With the issue of plastics firmly on the agenda, could this spell trouble for the vinyl records spinning on the world’s turntables?

Vinyl records are back. The irrepressible format that many people thought had died off in the mid-noughties has come roaring back over the past decade, hitting sales heights not seen since 1991, the last high-water mark for vinyl record sales.

According to recent data from Nielsen Music, 2018 record sales topped 16 million, up 14 per cent on 2017, which was a record-breaking year itself, during which vinyl sales reached their highest point since 1991, with over four million LP sales in the UK. Even the major supermarkets are selling records now.

As Christine Gough, senior director of physical production, Universal Music Group, explains: “People are taking time out of their busy lives to listen to music on vinyl. They want to sit back, put that vinyl on and listen.”

It is the physical interaction that resonates with enthusiasts, Gough says: the sleeve artwork, the heavyweight vinyl (180g is the prevailing benchmark of a quality release). The trouble, potentially, for record collectors and the environment is that the product has to be created from raw materials.

As with plastic carrier bags, it isn’t a simple black-and-white issue. True, most vinyl records involve the use of fossil fuels, chemicals and energy, but they typically endure for decades, with vinyl LPs being cherished, bequeathed and resold. They rarely end up in landfill and their inherent value means that unsold new records are often melted down and reused.

Stack of vinyl records

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Streaming services might seem like the greener option, but millions of digital files being streamed billions of times all require energy-intensive servers to store, retrieve and serve them to the consumer’s host device, such as a smartphone, which itself contributes to streaming’s carbon footprint, with its rare earth metals and short lifespan. By contrast, once a vinyl LP has been produced and purchased, its impact on the environment becomes minimal – even the record player typically requires less energy than a computer or digital music server.  

Still, the production of a vinyl record is often a noisy, dirty, 19th-century steam-driven manufacturing process, involving a series of environmentally troubling materials. As Michal Sterba, CEO of Czech-based GZ Media – a company a lot of UK record labels use for their manufacturing – admits: “Vinyl record is not the most ecological product in the world. A lot of steam, a lot of chilling, questionable process during the galvanics, the compound itself contains PVC, [it’s] very difficult to recycle in the end.”

PVC first replaced the brittle shellac – which had been used for 78s since the 1900s – during the 1950s, as use of the new polyvinyl chloride (PVC) became more widespread. PVC certainly has its manufacturing advantages: it is durable, cheap, easily formed and moulded, and is a stable plastic with an extremely low flammability, low melting temperature and low static charge. All these attributes make it an ideal material for manufacturing records.

However, PVC is also derived in part from the use of fossil fuels – primarily gas, but also oil – and the finished record can contain toxic additives such as carbon black and heavy metals, as a stabilising agent is added to the PVC to keep it from degrading over time. Vintage vinyl is quite likely to contain cadmium or lead – both toxic to humans – and even some new vinyl might still contain lead.

With certain additives no longer allowed, substitutes and new compounds have been devised. Legislation and compliance affects the formulations on offer, with the problem compounded by each territory having different rules (Brexit is very bad news for the UK music industry). Tin and zinc are more commonly used as PVC stabilisers now, but PVC remains a thorny issue.

The sustainability concerns include health issues for workers during the manufacturing phase, the environmental release of toxins during production, as well as the release of toxics from products when they burn, notably carcinogenic dioxins associated with the manufacture of chlorinated materials.

These concerns have not gone unnoticed within the record-manufacturing business. “People are paying more attention to the materials in the products they buy,” says Rob Brown, CEO of Viryl Technologies in Toronto, Canada, which produces the new WarmTone smart-record-pressing system. “Environmental consciousness is a big driver, even for people buying records.”

Some presses have been experimenting with different plastics, such as PET (as used for many water bottles), but audio playback was reportedly not up to the same standard as a PVC-pressed record. Hybrid PVC formulations are also being explored, but it may take a completely new approach to knock PVC off the number one spot.

Vinyl record player

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An affiliation of eight Dutch companies operating under the banner of Green Vinyl Records is making (sound)waves, promoting a more sustainable vinyl LP product by using injection moulding techniques.

“We found that by using injection moulding we could make records much faster and use about 60 to 70 per cent less energy than the old pressing machines,” says Pieter van Ettro, a project engineer for Symcon, a supplier of materials to the optical industry.

This injection approach obviates the need for steam boilers to heat the vinyl in order to soften it before stamping. “It creates less waste and produces a product that is completely recyclable,” Ettro explains. “It also meets and exceeds the durability and sound quality of traditional vinyl.”

Another new approach is ‘HD Vinyl’, a laser-cut vinyl proposition from Rebeat Innovation in Austria. This method would do away with the messy business of electroplating the lacquer disc, a chemically intensive process used to transfer metal (usually nickel or silver) from a solution onto the surface of the lacquer master, ready for the pressing process.

For those still pressing records the traditional way, there are ways to ‘environmentalise’ the process, such as cutting direct to vinyl. Other studios are reusing old 1960s lathes to hand-craft small-batch releases, in the spirit of the DIY maker culture, or resurrecting long-lost pressing machines unearthed in the junkyards of Latin American or East European countries.

Certainly, there is some degree of plastics concern with records, but it is minimal – according to available statistics, new vinyl records account for approximately less than half of 1 per cent of the global production of PVC. The future is also looking greener, with new technologies and new production methods emerging. Maybe this is just the end of side one for vinyl: it’s time to turn the record over and enjoy side two.

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