Vinyl records’ revival threatens environment and health

Previously published @EWG.

Vinyl record playing

Demand for vinyl records is soaring, but there’s something funky about this musical comeback – the energy and chemicals involved with producing the iconic circular discs creates pollution, adds to the climate crisis and may harm our health.

But it’s not all sour notes, because some vinyl producers are experimenting with ways to make records that are much less carbon intensive. Other manufacturers are eyeing alternatives to the potentially harmful toxics in their products. The developments suggest a possible future where vinyl can continue to be in demand, but in an environmentally friendly way.

Overture: This is how we do it

In 2020, vinyl records sales in the U.S. surpassed CD sales for the first time since 1986. During the pandemic, vinyl sales initially slumped, but then exploded, with sales rising 108 percent in the first six months of 2021. A belief in higher music quality combined with the physical and visual appeal of vinyl are key reasons.

Changes in who’s buying music also has an impact. Customers are now skewing younger and female. LP releases from newer artists like Billie Eilish and Harry Styles are outpacing classic rock mainstays like Queen and Fleetwood Mac.  

Vinyl production is ramping up to levels not seen since the 1960s and 1970s, when printing presses churned out the likes of the two-disc “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and millions of copies of chart-topping albums by Pink Floyd.

The ongoing pressure for record presses to churn out even more vinyl product has intensified during the gift-giving holiday season. Sony Music ordered 500,000 vinyl copies of Adele’s “30” in advance of its November release to ensure there’d be enough supply to meet demand from shoppers.

But with this massive surge in demand and production, how much is the vinyl record industry doing to ensure long-term environmental sustainability?

Track 1: Mo money, mo problems

As the profitability of vinyl rises, associated pollution risks also spike.

A vinyl record’s main component is the plastic polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, derived from petrochemicals like natural gas, which emit large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Most U.S. pressing plants also use antiquated, energy- and water-intensive steam boilers and a toxic brew of chemicals to pump out records, giving vinyl 12 times the greenhouse emissions of other physical music media. The emissions add to the climate crisis, and more vinyl production means even more greenhouse gases.

Single-use plastic shrink-wrap is also required by large retailers to protect records during shipping, exacerbating the global plastic waste problem.

And the vinyl boom also has some potentially negative implications for human health, with PVC and other record components posing possible risks.

“For consumers, it is not possible to know how the PVC was made. But the chemical additives that have been used in PVC products are often extremely toxic compounds, such as phthalates or metals like lead, that can lead to long term health harms,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., EWG senior scientist.

“Vinyl records are not the biggest user of PVC plastic but developing safer alternatives is an important endeavor,” he added.

PVC is prized for its durability and malleability at high heat. But as University of Oslo Associate Professor Kyle Devine wrote in “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music”: “The occupational hazards of oil drilling, the planetary problems of petroleum, and the political plights of petrocapitalism are known: people suffer, communities scatter, oils spill, environments suffocate, wars storm, empires soar. These are the conditions that define the production of petroleum, and they spiral into existence every time a needle glides through a groove.”

Lead is also used in the U.S. as a stabilizer to give vinyl records long-term durability, even though scientists agree there’s no safe level of exposure to lead. The toxic substance is particularly harmful to children and can lower their IQ. The European Union phased out lead for its toxicity, but some U.S. record makers continue to use it, so an earworm might not be all people get from an album.

Track 2: Look what you made me do

Some American music companies are producing millions of vinyl albums without tackling the health and environmental risks, moving quickly to answer demand.

Jenn DeEugenio, sales and customer experience manager for Furnace Record Pressing and the founder of Women in Vinyl, likens the industry’s current attitude toward environmental sustainability to “fast fashion,” where inexpensive clothing is produced rapidly by mass-market retailers in response to the latest trends.

“People want their music as accessible as digital and most consumers don’t understand that’s not how vinyl works and so,… it’s the same kind of thing going off the runway straight to Target. We’re so busy right now we don’t have time to think of anything else,” DeEugenio said.

But some vinyl makers are finding ways to make vinyl durable and long-lasting without harming listeners or the environment. “At the end of the day, we’re making something that by design is supposed to last a long time,” said Matt Earley, owner of Cleveland Ohio pressing plant Gotta Groove Records.

Earley’s company is one of the handful committed to finding sustainable solutions for their products. One way they do this is by regrinding old records and PVC trim into new records. “The demand for recycled components is still in the minority, but it does seem like it’s been gaining some steam over the past couple of years as more and more people are looking for ways to make their products more sustainable,” Earley said. His company also avoided lead from the beginning, choosing to use the less-toxic tin as a vinyl stabilizer.

Still, Bryan Ekus, president of the annual industry B2B conference Making Vinyl, says there’s currently not enough regrind material to go around because “we have such a demand for manufacturing.”

Consumers also view LP records as collectibles, so they rarely find their way to the landfill (unless it’s disco). There’s also a thriving used-record secondary market. “From a record store perspective, we feel pretty good about what we’re doing,” said Michal Kurtz, co-founder of Record Store Day, an annual gathering of record store owners and staff to celebrate vinyl culture. “Essentially we just recycle albums over and over again.”

“It’s definitely not the same as… beef or concrete industry or the airline industry or anything like that,” Devine said. “Music isn’t going anywhere. It is a constant of human evolution. It is about managing impact.”

Track 3: Truth hurts

Misleading advertising of vinyl isn’t doing people or the environment any favors, because it’s making demand increase – based on easily dispelled facts.

New-era vinyl emphasizes 180 gram “audiophile” quality records. Most records in the 70’s heyday were pressed on thinner – usually 140 gram – platters. Thicker records mean more dirty PVC used in production and heavier loads for shipping. And 180 gram records don’t sound any better – it’s all a marketing conceit.

Grooves that transmit the data encoded on the record to the needle are the same depth, no matter the record’s thickness. What makes a record sound good is how it’s recorded and the skill level of the pressing plant operator, experts say.

“In the beginning it was definitely about 180 gram vinyl,” said Kurtz. “But then I became educated that it really didn’t improve the sound quality at all. So, we’ve discouraged 180 gram vinyl and now it’s almost nothing to Record Store Day.”

“The extruder on our 180-gram press doesn’t handle the regrind-shaped pellets as well,” said Earley, whose company has worked on over 10,000 vinyl releases.

“Virgin vinyl” is another term with little real meaning that’s used in the industry. The perception that fresh-from-the-chemical-company PVC “sounds” better is pervasive. And that regrinds lead to inferior sound, something Gotta Groove’s Early says isn’t true if the press is regrinding black vinyl.

A successful marketing ploy to make deluxe vinyl reissues of albums a must-have purchase is also adding to the problem. Even if the original of a classic album is on sale in a record store’s used section, vinyl producers are now re-releasing it with lavish packaging, material-intensive extras, and of course, the double 180 gram vinyl treatment. The constant production line of new album editions undermines the idea of a vinyl album being a durable item that should avoid this outcome.

“[The Beatles’] ‘Let it Be’ just came out, again, like two weeks ago,” said Aaron Meyerring, co-owner of Minneapolis’s iconic Electric Fetus record store.

Track 4: Sweet dreams (are made of this)

Despite the heavy marketing push and some vinyl producers’ doing business as usual, there’s reason for optimism, thanks to innovative efforts by some manufacturers, who are dreaming up less-polluting ways to make records.

Toronto-based Viryl Technologies is building new record presses that don’t require energy-intensive steam boilers.

“In 2018, in order to try and reduce our carbon footprint, we decided to take a more green approach to doing things and introduced our steamless technology. It reduces the emissions and nasty chemicals used in that process,” said Alexander DesRoches, Viryl’s marketing and sales director.

The company is also testing PhonoHive, a novel way to distribute new records internationally. With Viryl presses now operating on every continent, the idea is to share pressing duties to eliminate shipping. Getting product to distributors worldwide can take a toll on the environment, he said. Having records made across the globe, all using the same parts, could be a solution.

Green Vinyl, a Dutch consortium that recently opened an American outpost in North Carolina, is moving to eliminate the use of PVCs, hoping to be a producer that can achieve both high audio quality and environmental sustainability.

Instead of old steam-powered machines, they’ve reengineered CD presses that can now make vinyl with their proprietary PVC replacement derived from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic. The process creates far fewer carbon dioxide, or CO2, emissions than before.

“We’ve achieved a 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions with the formula material, compared to PVC, with an overall 80 percent reduction in CO2 with our entire process,” Green Vinyl CEO Pierre van Dongen said.

The compound doesn’t require toxic stabilizers like lead. And it’s more durable than PVC, he said, estimating 500 plays before audio degradation, compared to 100 for records using PVC. “Sound quality and feel were big for us in the beginning. What we hear now is that our noise floor is super low. We started with smaller bands and now we’re doing test pressings for Garth Brooks.”

Track 5: Don’t leave me this way

Record company accountants might want the vinyl craze to continue without change, but that’s not sustainable. Efforts by the likes of Green Vinyl will help, but questions linger about who might help accelerate alternative approaches.

Switching to streaming services like Spotify isn’t necessarily better for the environment. Devine found digital audio needs “infrastructures of data storage, processing and transmission that have potentially higher greenhouse gas emissions than the petrochemical plastics” used in physical audio production.

The music business is notoriously opaque, and vinyl is no exception. Although the Recording Industry Association of America tracks some sales data, it’s hard to know the total volume of vinyl produced and sold. Companies aren’t offering the data, and there are no governing standards that require them to do so.

Amazon, Target and WalMart have the resources to force change in the market. All three are promoting and selling vinyl and helping to drive the steep increase in demand, sending already stressed production presses into a frenzy. All three have also made supply chain environmental sustainability pledges. But none have spoken publicly on vinyl’s pollution problems, nor acted on them.

Major record labels are also focused on deluxe album reissue packages and vinyl from their marquee artists. Many of the older legacy presses they rely on would need expensive retrofitting to switch from steam to lessen their environmental impact, so some labels can’t be relied on to lead the push for change.

Industry giants like Warner and Sony recently signed a climate crisis pledge, but of the signatories, only U.K.-based record label Ninja Tune has explicitly focused on vinyl production. “Most of our vinyl pressings are 140g rather than 180g (with no loss in audio quality) which reduces manufacture and distribution footprint proportionally,” the company states on its website.

Finale: You ain’t seen nothing yet

One promising group that could help foment a vinyl industry overhaul is actually a collective of individuals – the consumers who are buying the records.

REVERB is a musician-founded nonprofit that for years has focused on greening concert tours and music festivals. “I think [a push for sustainable vinyl] is more going to come from individual artists pushing their labels or consumer demand,” said Tanner Watt, REVERB’s director of partnerships and development. “When stadium level artists like Coldplay and Billie Eilish are demanding a change in the way that their vinyl is produced, I think that we could see a positive shift.”

LP consumers are tracking younger, and Gen Z sees the environment as their main concern when shopping. Doesn’t a pivot to sustainable vinyl records that solve the pollution problems of album production make perfect business sense?

“I agree. A hundred percent agree. Absolutely, because if it’s doable and it’s marketed the right way, whoever comes out with that would be very, very, very successful,” said Electric Fetus co-owner Stephanie Covart Meyerring.

Don Carr