Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

What's the carbon footprint of a vinyl record?

The vinyl record, which is gaining renewed interest all over the world, is gradually beginning to undergo a green transformation

Published: May 21, 2024 12:11:46 PM IST
Updated: May 21, 2024 07:08:43 AM IST

What's the carbon footprint of a vinyl record?Vinyl - Shutterstock

Vinyl has made a strong comeback in recent years. But the materials from which records are made bring ecological considerations that the music industry can no longer ignore. Internationally renowned artists such as Billie Eilish, whose new album was released on May 17, are promoting a more eco-responsible approach to vinyl production.

You may never have even thought about it, but the vinyl record -- which has been seeing a comeback in recent years -- also has a carbon footprint. To highlight the issue, singer Billie Eilish, whose new album "Hit Me Hard And Soft" was released May 17, is promoting "greener" vinyl. A few months before the release of her new album, the "Ocean Eyes" singer explained on her official website that she would be releasing "a limit of eight variants of vinyl."

In addition, the website states that "the standard black variant is made from 100% recycled black vinyl," and that "all vinyl packaging is made from FSC certified recycled paper/boards made 100% from post-consumer waste and recycled pre-consumer fibers." The ink used, meanwhile, is "raw plant-based and water-based dispersion varnish," and "the sleeves are 100% recycled and re-usable." Indeed, it seems that the star has thought of everything. But Billie Eilish isn't the only artist taking action. A few years earlier, the English singer Nick Mulvey made the news by releasing a vinyl record made from plastic waste recovered from the ocean for his single "In The Anthropocene."

The vinyl record, which is gaining renewed interest all over the world, is gradually beginning to undergo a green transformation. And it's a necessary one. This vintage object is typically made from 43% PVC, the acronym used to designate the polyvinyl chloride family of plastics from which the record takes its name. According to a 2019 study carried out by a team of researchers from the UK's Keele University, vinyl records contain around 135g of PVC, and their carbon footprint is equivalent to 0.5kg of CO2. In particular, the study estimates that for around 4 million vinyl records sold in 2018, vinyl record consumption in the UK would have produced 1.9 billion tonnes of CO2 that year.

And that's without taking into account transport and packaging. Bearing in mind that in 2023, around 50 million vinyl records were sold in the USA alone, and that in France this figure represents around 5 million for the same year, the global carbon footprint of vinyl is therefore significant.

Which is greener, vinyl or streaming?


If we add these figures to those for music streaming, the industry's carbon footprint is greater still. According to English musicologist Kyle Devine, professor at the University of Oslo and co-author of the "Cost of Music" (2019) report, music streaming is estimated to have generated between 200,000 and 350,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases in the USA alone in 2016. Figures released directly by Spotify estimate the carbon impact of the popular audio streaming platform in 2021 at 353,054 tonnes of CO2.

So it can be hard to know whether to opt for streaming or vinyl records when it comes to listening to music and limiting your carbon footprint. According to researchers at Keele University (authors of the above-mentioned study), it depends above all on our listening habits. "Once vinyl is purchased, it can be played over and over again, the only carbon cost coming from running the record player," the researchers explain. They continue: "If you only listen to a track a couple of times, then streaming is the best option. If you listen repeatedly, a physical copy is best; streaming an album over the internet more than 27 times will likely use more energy than it takes to produce and manufacture the same CD."

Also read: Emission taxes on companies may undermine investment but not for environmental reasons

And for vinyl fans, one of the best ways to limit the carbon footprint is to turn to greener alternatives. And these do exist, as demonstrated by the initiatives of Nick Mulvey and Billie Eilish. Plus, some manufacturers are looking to organic materials to replace PVC, such as London-based Evolution Music, which has developed a vinyl made from sugar cane. Or the German company Optimal Media, based in Röbel/Müritz, which has created "BioVinyl," an alternative to PVC made from recycled cooking oil or industrial waste gases. In France, Rennes-based M Com' Musique is working on vinyl records where PVC is replaced with algae!