Digital Music Better For The Environment Than Vinyl Or CDs? Guess Again

Google Play Music
Somewhere in a landfill there sits a pile of broken records, busted cassette tapes, and scratched up CDs. To some extent, these are all relics of the past (vinyl is making a comeback, though), having given way first to MP3 files (hello, Napster) and now streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify. One would think that the transition to streaming media is better for the environment, but that might not actually be the case.

The University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo collaborated on a study that found that even though the use of plastic for things like vinyl and cassette tapes has gone way down in the modern era, there has been a bump in greenhouse gas emissions, as a result of streaming media.

According to the study, the music industry reduced its use of plastic from 61 million kilograms per year in 2000 to 8 million kilograms in 2016. That's obviously a huge decrease, but transferring songs and playlists to digital media and subsequently transmitting digital audio files has offset the decline—the amount of greenhouse gasses produced from this is higher than what was generated by producing plastic for physical forms of media.

"From a carbon emissions perspective, however, the transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music," said Dr. Kyle Devine, an Associate Professor in Music from the University of Oslo who led the research.

Those 61 million kilograms of plastic at the peak of physical media production in the music industry translated to 157 million kilograms of greenhouse gasses, the researchers say. But in 2016, after the amount of plastic used for music production plummeted, researchers say greenhouse gasses from music streaming and downloading just in the United States rose to between 200-350 million kilograms.

To be clear, the researchers are not advocating for music lovers to abandon streaming music services or digital downloads.

"The point of this research is not to tell consumers that they should not listen to music, but to gain an appreciation of the changing costs involved in our music consumption behavior,” said Dr. Matt Brennan, a Reader in Popular Music at the University of Glasgow. "We hope the findings might encourage change toward more sustainable consumption choices and services that remunerate music creators while mitigating environmental impact."

How exactly the music industry and consumers can go about that, however, is not something the study got into.