Duncan sees Steve as a vinyl-worshipping hipster. Steve thinks Duncan is a resource efficiency fundamentalist, pathologically obsessed with reducing his and everybody else’s environmental impact
Sales of new vinyl records were up by 26.8 percent in the UK last year - with 4.1 million long-players (LPs) purchased.
The vinyl resurgence has been welcomed by music loving discophiles wary of the digitalisation of culture - like Steve. But it's a source of worry for resource efficiency-minded environmentalists - like Duncan.
Each LP weighs around 135g - so 4.1 million sales mean about 550 tonnes of petroleum-derived, polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC) entering circulation.
Once manufactured, the distribution of vinyl records also consumes resources. If you want a greener way to listen to a music track, streaming might seem the better option.
But streaming requires server farms, a data connection, a router and a digital device to play it on. The environmental costs here also add up.
Duncan sees Steve as a vinyl-worshipping hipster: Steve thinks Duncan is a resource efficiency fundamentalist, pathologically obsessed with reducing his and everybody else’s environmental impact.
To resolve this impasse amicably, we decided to work together to find out which is really the more sustainable way of listening to one’s jams.
While the focus of this article is the environment, one of the conditions Steve placed on our joint working was that we acknowledge the social and cultural advantages of vinyl.
Streaming has to some extent democratised music by making it easier for artists to self-publish and by providing easier pathways to new audiences. But it doesn’t replicate vinyl’s role in supporting the essential community aspect of music making.
Record shops and fairs provide places for music fans to meet likeminded people and strengthen social bonds. They also contribute to local economies, add to the cultural value of commercial areas, and promote local musicians and live music scenes.
At live events - particularly at the smaller end of the scale - merchandise stalls remain the main point of social connection between musicians and audience.
All of this makes vinyl - as a tangible musical commodity - something that local social and economic activity can be based around. By contrast, the main economic beneficiaries of streaming are established popstars and trans-national tech companies.
With that acknowledged, let’s start our environmental assessment: two people (let’s call them Duncan and Steve) each want to listen to a track a certain number of times. Is vinyl or streaming the more resource-efficient way?
When the track is created, we’ll assume that it’s digitally mastered, so the impact of the recording process is negligible and the same for both.
When they listen to it at home, they both need speakers and an amplifier of some kind – so no difference there.
We will focus on the steps involved in getting the digital master to the amplifier. Let’s start near the amplifier and work back towards the recording studio.
First, both Steve and Duncan need something on which to play their music. Steve needs a turntable, while Duncan has a choice of devices – a phone, tablet or laptop for example.
Each of these has many other uses, so you could argue that Duncan having the player is in effect a given. However, to keep the comparison fair we will assume that a specialist media player is used.
Conveniently, several years ago Duncan did some green design work for a Hi-Fi component manufacturer that makes both turntables and network music players.
Duncan at first assumed that the digital option would have a greater footprint of materials and components. However, while we don’t have detailed information about all the materials each uses, the complexity of the components and manufacturing process aren’t all that different, at least at the top end of product design.
Our next point of comparison is the power consumption of the two devices. The average power consumption of a high end streaming player is about 15W, compared with just 5W for a high end turntable.
However, the turntable also requires a pre-amplifier, while the network music player has one built in. These consume about 12W, so on total energy consumption there seems to be little difference.
Of course, the environmentally conscious audiophile could sign up to a green electricity tariff or install their own generation equipment to reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions – but that would affect both listening choices equally.
Now let’s think about the process of getting the music to the player. Steve’s records need to be physically delivered (probably using diesel vehicles), either to online distribution warehouses for postal delivery or to record stores.
We haven’t been able to find a great deal of information about the distances involved, and deliveries may be on vehicles that are also transporting other products, so estimating the carbon footprint of distribution is problematic.
Once he has got hold of his record, though, Steve can play the track more or less indefinitely, using only the energy required to run the turntable.
Duncan needs to choose a streaming service through which to access his tracks. Greenpeace runs an annual assessment of the climate impact associated with the internet, providing a useful guide to the relative performance of, among other things, streaming services.
It appears that Soundcloud is among the least environmentally sound choices, while Google Play and Apple Music are amongst the best.
Frustratingly, though, since only relative impacts are reported it’s tricky to estimate the absolute impact of streaming a music track.
According to 2011 figures (the most recent we could find), the electricity intensity of server streaming was about 1.1Wh/GB, so if Duncan streams music for eight hours a day at 320 kilobits per second, he would use about 9.6Wh.
Generating that much electricity would emit 4.35g of CO2 per day, which is about 1.6kg over a whole year.
Today, servers are more efficient and grid carbon intensity is lower, so this figure will have fallen – probably to little more than 1kg. In CO2 terms, switching streaming service will make only a fractional difference.
In addition, Duncan needs to account for the environmental impact of building the server farms and the transmission infrastructure – although the share that is attributable to his streaming habit will be small.
We’re now near the start of the process. In both cases the master recording can be sent to its destination via the internet.
For Steve, that means a pressing plant, where a sequence of electrochemical or physical processes converts it to a stamper, which is used to press records out of PVC.
There, Steve incurs the environmental costs of the processes, materials and waste streams involved in creating the stamper and the polymer, plus the emissions from the energy consumed in the course of manufacturing.
The embodied energy of PVC production is estimated at 57.2 MJ/kg, which is about 7.7MJ for an LP weighing 135g, or 2,139 watt-hours.
Duncan’s listening experience demands none of this manufacturing infrastructure or material. Instead his music is stored on a server where it can be accessed instantly, and the data must be transmitted each time he wants to listen to a track.
Based on our 2011 figures, 2,139 watt-hours would get you 1,945GB, which at 320kbps comes to about 100 minutes, or about the length of the White Album by The Beatles.
Of course, that’s a double LP requiring two slabs of vinyl, so streaming looks to be twice as resource-efficient in terms of embodied energy, provided that you only play each record once.
With today’s more efficient servers and greater use of renewable energy, you could probably stream the White Album a couple more times for the same energy cost; equally, though, most people will give their vinyl records a fair few spins – who doesn’t love the Beatles?
This leaves us with the sort of conclusion reached by many comparative life-cycle assessments: on each side, there is a range of results depending on the assumptions you make, and a substantial degree of overlap between these ranges.
Long and winding road
The vinyl vs. streaming comparison isn’t easy, as the infrastructure required for each is quite different, and information is scarce.
However, our calculations suggest that the key factors are how many times vinyl gets played and the equipment it’s played on.
As energy continues to decarbonise, streaming’s environmental performance will improve. But for now it seems that vinyl and streaming are pretty much neck and neck.
This is surprising and interesting to Duncan, whose family remain enthusiastic streamers. It’s a relief to Steve, who now has an environmental excuse for listening to his records more frequently.
Duncan Oswald and Steve Watson work for Bristol-based, independent environmental consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting. Duncan is a resource efficiency and renewable energy expert and Steve is deputy editor of Eunomia’s environmental blog Isonomia.