Is it better for the planet to listen to CDs, records, or MP3s?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Oct. 6 2009 9:42 AM

World Music

Is it better for the planet to listen to CDs, records, or MP3s?

A record player.
Is it better for the planet to listen to CDs, records, or MP3s?

I buy a lot of music, both CDs and vinyl from my local record shop and downloaded albums from iTunes. That got me wondering: Is one of those options more environmentally friendly than the other? An album of MP3s doesn't come with excess packaging, but what about the energy cost of all that downloading?

Lucky for you, a few enterprising researchers have looked into this very question—or at least, the CDs-vs.-MP3s aspect of it. Music downloads are better for the environment than compact discs, in just about every category. But that doesn't mean you need to do all your record shopping from your desk—there are a few key things consumers can do to close the gap.

Earlier this summer, researchers from Carnegie Mellon and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory prepared a report for Microsoft and Intel that tallied up the greenhouse gas emissions and energy usage (PDF) associated with downloading albums and buying CDs at the store. Back in 2003, a European team working with the record company EMI compared MP3s and CDs from the perspective of "material intensity"—i.e., the amount of materials and resources, like metals and fuel, that go into creating a product.

The impact categories for CDs are pretty obvious: You've got to manufacture those discs, booklets, and jewel cases and then shuttle the finished product along a supply chain until it reaches the final consumer. When it comes to digital files, the environmental costs come from the energy consumed by data centers, those rooms full of servers and network equipment that serve as the backbone of the Internet. Plus, you have to consider the electricity used by your home computer and some (tiny) fraction of the resources associated with manufacturing it.

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In both analyses, the downloaded album came out ahead of the store-bought disc: The computer version produced 13 percent as much carbon dioxide and used 13 percent as much energy; it was also 37 percent as materially intensive. In both studies, buying a CD at the store was somewhat worse for the environment than ordering online and having it shipped directly to you. That's because direct mailing eliminates the need for electricity use in the retail store and because it's often more efficient for a product to travel to your doorstep as part of a larger delivery on the back of a mail truck than for you to hop in your car and make a special trip. (As the Lantern has pointed out before, e-commerce isn't always the greener option: Much depends on how efficiently the route is planned and whether the packages travel by air or by road.)                                         

Two other factors are what you do with the albums once you've downloaded them and how you get to your local record store. According to the American study, downloading an album of 60 to 100 megabytes uses an estimated 7 megajoules of energy and produces 400 grams of carbon dioxide. Burn that album onto blank CD, and the figure increases to roughly 12 megajoules and 700 grams; put that CD in a jewel case, and the figures go up even further, to 23 megajoules and 1,100 grams.

Meanwhile, the American researchers found that half the impact of buying a CD from the store comes from driving over to pick it up. If you walk or bike to your local record shop, your purchase will incur, on average, just 1,330 grams of carbon dioxide—about the same as a homemade CD in a jewel case.

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 ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.

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