Vinyl records were once written off as relics. First, they were replaced by shiny compact discs that (supposedly) offered superior sound. Then streaming took over, allowing fans to carry vast music collections with them wherever they go.
In recent years, vinyl sales have turned around. In 2022, vinyl outsold CDs in the U.S. for the first time since 1987, with over 41 million records sold. More and more musical acts — including the unchallenged ruler of the pop music world, Taylor Swift — are releasing LP’s. Swift set the standard by putting out multiple pressings of her albums in different colours, leaving Swifties scrambling to collect them all.
For those of a certain age, the record revival stirs feelings of nostalgia as a new generation tunes in to the warm, clear sound of vinyl. But this is the 21st century, the age of climate change — and vinyl’s new fans want to know what all those records are doing to the environment.
“The industry has been going through more and more reflection in recent years as the vinyl boom has accelerated,” said Paul Miller, vice president of sales at Precision Record Pressing in Burlington, Ont.
“On the one hand, it’s something that plants are really beginning to contend with and, on the other hand, we’re seeing more requests from artists asking what our sustainability efforts are.”
Records are made from polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC. It’s a petroleum product derived from a complex chemical process. A vinyl record that winds up in a landfill lasts more or less forever. So the focus at Precision, Miller said, is on minimizing waste.
“The most impactful thing is to send as little to landfill as possible,” he said.
To help reduce waste, Precision offers what it calls its Eco Mix. Misprinted or rejected albums that come off its presses are ground up, along with vinyl shavings left over from the manufacturing process, and then used to make new records.
New sounds from old scrap
Record plants have always tried to re-use this scrap material but Miller said his plant has taken it a step further. It’s been sorting its leftover vinyl by colour so it can offer artists who want to use recycled material a choice of six distinctive shades; red, blue, green, yellow/orange, purple/pink and grey.
“The industry has had a recycled vinyl product for some time, typically called ‘random colour,'” Miller said. “What that is is a grab bag of re-ground colours thrown together into a surprise colour.
“Sometimes it looks okay. Sometimes it has a bit of a baby vomit look. So it does the trick as far as being a sustainable product, but it’s not that beautiful.”
Eco Mix is priced the same as single-colour vinyl and boasts identical sound quality, Miller said, making it an attractive choice for artists looking to make an environmental statement.
Pop star Billie Eilish is releasing a special version of her debut album using the recycled material. Smaller bands and labels are also taking notice.
“Cost is good but being a little eco-friendly is something that I find important,” said Josh Wickins, who runs Wormwood Records in Ajax, Ont.
Wickins runs his label out the basement of a Caribbean roti restaurant — a room filled with amplifiers and musical gear, its walls covered in posters advertising gigs for some of the many bands that use the space to jam and rehearse.
“It is the definition of a pure punk basement,” Wickins said. “Just a pure punk spot.”
Wormwood’s latest release is by the Toronto hardcore band Street Justice. The band members are dedicated vegans who embrace a straight-edge lifestyle — no booze or drugs. Their songs are short, loud and raw, with a firm focus on social issues like animal rights. Their new album is pressed from Eco Mix vinyl in shocking pink.
“For this record, I think it really tied with the ethos of the band. Their values, their ideals,” said Wickins.
How much real environmental benefit comes from any of this is debatable. And there is a movement afoot in some parts of the music industry to move beyond vinyl altogether.
In the Netherlands, a group of eight companies calling themselves Green Vinyl is looking to streamline the record pressing process to make it more energy efficient. It also wants to replace the vinyl currently used to make LPs with more environmentally friendly material. A British firm, Evolution Music, has been pressing records on plant-based bioplastic which it says is non-toxic and compostable.
“I think a change is coming. It’s inevitable,” said Kyle Devine, a Canadian who teaches musicology at the University of Oslo in Norway.
Devine, who has visited the Green Vinyl plant and sits on the advisory board of Evolution Music calls PVC a “particularly nasty plastic.”
“Records are fossil fuel products,” he said. “They’re polluting to make. They’re polluting to get rid of.”
Devine insisted he doesn’t hate vinyl; he even has a small record collection of his own. He just thinks a better way of making records is now within reach.
The audible flaw in vinyl substitutes
He acknowledged vinyl alternatives have so far been met with skepticism by music fans, who say the sound just isn’t as good. But he said he expects that to change and believes some listeners would be willing to sacrifice sound quality if it means going green.
“People who are buying new records are significantly younger people. And it’s known that younger people do care a lot about climate issues,” he said. “And so I could imagine younger buyers purchasing greener records almost regardless of what they sounded like.”
In the grand scheme of things, Devine said, records aren’t a huge environmental problem. And every music format — even streaming — has a carbon footprint. But he said that shouldn’t stop music fans or the music industry from trying to do better.
Miller said his company is open to the idea of vinyl alternatives but isn’t sold just yet.
“At the moment, I feel like there’s more work to be done on that. I think record fans can accept some degree of trade-off when it comes to a more sustainable product that has a slightly higher surface noise,” he said.
“But it seems to me it’s not quite there yet and that the surface noise is too high. So what’s the point of making a vinyl record that’s not going to sound great?”
For now, Miller said, his plant will concentrate on reducing waste and reusing as much material as possible — fuelling the vinyl revival in a sustainable way.