Is it better for the planet to listen to CDs, records, or MP3s?
A high-speed Internet connection can reduce the costs associated with a music download, since a faster download means less electricity usage. Similarly, bigger, higher-fidelity audio files require more data-center energy and more time to download. All things being equal, the American team estimated that increasing the album size to 260 MB translated into roughly 800 extra grams of carbon dioxide. Neither paper looked at the energy consumed by playing physical or digital albums, or factored in the considerable resources, emissions, and disposal issues associated with manufacturing stereos, iPods, laptops and other listening devices.
We might also consider how format affects shopping behavior. The Lantern, for example, finds that the ease, speed, and relative cheapness of purchasing music online means that she buys a lot more albums now than she did back in the predigital days. That means her music collection may have a bigger footprint now than it used to.
What about vinyl? The Lantern hasn't come across any cradle-to-consumer analyses of LPs, but there are a few things that might come into play. Records tend to arrive in more benign packaging than CDs: cardboard sleeves, as opposed to bulky, petroleum-based polystyrene cases. (According to a recent analysis by Julie's Bicycle, a U.K. organization dedicated to reducing the British music industry's carbon footprint, cardboard sleeves produce only 1 percent as many greenhouse gas emissions as similarly-sized jewel cases.) On the other hand, an LP is about twice as heavy as a packaged CD, which translates into higher fuel usage for transportation.
Another possible knock against records is that they're made out polyvinyl chloride. As the Lantern has discussed before with regards to pleather jackets and Christmas trees, PVC is a plastic non grata among environmentalists, because of concerns about dangerous emissions during its production and—if burned—its disposal. (One LP manufacturer the Lantern spoke with talked about experimenting with bioplastic—but the switch to vegetable-based albums isn't likely to happen any time soon.)
In any case, LPs represent a tiny piece of the overall PVC market. A recent article in Crawdaddy attributed about 0.02 percent of total U.S. production of PVC to record manufacturing. If you'd like to keep your record collection as green as possible, vintage would be the way to go, since you'll avoid any impacts associated with manufacturing fresh plastic. (Same goes for CDs—shopping at a used-music store means no new polycarbonate-and-aluminum discs and no new polystyrene cases.)
One last way to reduce the impact of your music collection is to make sure you dispose of it properly. Try to sell old records or CDs, or find a library or school that might accept musical donations. Otherwise, Earth911.com has listings for 37 locations in 13 states that will accept old vinyl records for recycling and many more places that will take old CDs.
Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and check this space every Tuesday.
Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.
Photograph of a record player by Photodisc/Getty Images Creative.