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Study: environmental cost of music higher than ever

Research has shown that the shift towards digital music consumption has caused a spike in carbon emissions, despite cutting out plastics used in vinyl, cassettes and CDs

By Anna Grace on 16 Apr 2019

Environmental cost of music

Dr Matt Brennan

A new study has revealed that the price consumers are willing to pay for listening to music has never been lower, whereas the environmental cost of music consumption is higher than ever before.

Dr Matt Brennan of the University of Glasgow led the research into the changing economic cost of recorded music and Dr Kyle Devine from the University of Oslo spearheaded research of the environmental cost of recording methods.

The study showed that the advent of music streaming platforms has led to a spike in carbon emissions, proving more harmful for the environment than before digitisation, despite cutting out the plastic pollution caused by CDs and vinyl.

“The good news is that overall plastic production in the recording industry has diminished since the heyday of vinyl,” says Devine. “However, the transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music.”

The research analysed plastic usage within the recording industry at peak years for vinyl, cassette and CD sales in the United States. Vinyl produced 58 million kilograms (kg) of plastic waste in 1977, cassettes produced 56m kg and CDs 61m kg.

The amount of plastics used by the same recording industry had dropped to 8m kg by 2016, due to the advent of streaming.

“The transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions”

“These figures seem to confirm the widespread notion that music digitalised is music dematerialised. The figures may even suggest that the rises of downloading and streaming are making music more environmentally friendly,” says Devine.

“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,” adds Devine.

The research translates the production of plastics and the electricity generated by storing and transmitting audio files into greenhouse gas equivalents (GHGs), in order to directly compare the overall environmental impact.

By 2016, music consumption generated GHGs of between 200m kg and 350m kg in the US alone, as compared to vinyl (140m kg), cassettes (136m kg) and CDs (157m kg).

“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,” says Brennan.

“We hope the findings might encourage change toward more sustainable consumption choices and services that remunerate music creators while mitigating environmental impact.”


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