Although the amount of plastic used to produce and package vinyl, cassette tapes and CDs has dropped drastically, a new study from the University of Glasgow shows that changes in environmental impact come from the rise of digital music streaming.
In 1977, the year in which vinyl sales peaked in the U.S., the recording industry used 58 million kilograms of plastic. 1988 brought us the peak of cassette sales, and a slightly lower figure of 56 millions kilograms of plastic. In the year 2000, the peak of CDs, the number of plastic used in the industry rose to 61 million kilograms. As streaming became the primary method of listening around 2016, the amount of plastics dropped down drastically to 8 million kilograms.
“The figures may even suggest that the rises of downloading and streaming are making music more environmentally friendly,” says Dr. Kyle Devine, the University of Oslo professor who led research on the environmental costs of music consumption. “But a very different picture emerges when we think about the energy used to power online music listening. Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy—which has a high impact on the environment.”
Researchers translated the production of plastics and the generation of electricity for storing and transmitting digital audio files into greenhouse gas equivalents (GHGs), and found that the rise in streaming is having an increasingly negative impact on the environment.
From the recording industry, the greenhouse gas equivalents are estimated to be around 200-350 million kilograms in the U.S. alone. To put that into perspective, there was 140 million kilograms of GHGs generated in 1977, 136 milllion kilograms in 1988 and 157 million in the year 2000.
The research also shows that while the environmental cost of music is at an all-time high, the price that listeners are willing to pay for a broad music library has never been lower. People are now only paying 1% of their weekly salary toward music consumption, while in 1997, people were willing to spend approximately 4.83% of their average weekly salaries towards music consumption.
The researchers also emphasized that the study was not designed to discourage people from using streaming services and listening to music, but rather to be more mindful of their consumption habits.
“The point of this research is not to tell consumers that they should not listen to music, but to gain an appreciation of the changing costs involved in our music consumption behaviour,” added Dr Matt Brennan, a Reader in Popular Music at the University of Glasgow. “We hope the findings might encourage change toward more sustainable consumption choices and services that remunerate music creators while mitigating environmental impact.”
Read the full report here.