Physical Media and Petrocapitalism: Your Growing Vinyl Record Collection Is Bad For the Environment

Because vinyls records and compact discs are plastic products, their existence relies on crude oil drilling and hazardous chemicals.

Bianca Piazza - Author
By

Jun. 5 2024, Published 10:43 a.m. ET

Photo of two black vinyl records and a record player on the floor next to a person laying down partially out of frame
Source: Getty Images

Nostalgia porn is alive and well in 2024, as people run to buy '90s-esque faux bootleg tees, Y2K-style corset tops, and granny square apparel of the '70s. But this wistful remembrance doesn't only apply to fashion, as physical media has seen a resurgence in the 2020s despite us living amid the streaming era.

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Encouraged by Oscar-winning directors Wes Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, and Christopher Nolan to promote art preservation, Digital Entertainment Group revealed that 4K Blu-ray sales went up by almost six percent in the third quarter of 2023 as opposed to 2022 earnings, as per The Wrap.

According to the CBC, in 2023, "vinyl records outsold CDs for the second consecutive year." It was also noted that a whopping 43 million records were sold that year in the U.S. alone. It's surely impressive, but is it bad for the environment?

Photo of records in a record store with a Taylor Swift vinyl as the focus
Source: Getty Images
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Modern-day vinyl mania reached a peak when Grammy winner Taylor Swift famously broke the "all-time record for the largest sales week on vinyl in U.S. history" with the 2023 release of 1989 (Taylor's Version), as detailed by Forbes.

Though the revival of dying art forms and technologies connects us to those who came before, the vinyl craze may just be a case of dirty consumerism, encouraging unnecessary spending and the production of synthetic materials.

So, what is the making of that limited-edition neon splatter vinyl record actually doing to the planet?

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What are vinyl records made of?

Columbia Records brought the 12-inch LP album — aka a vinyl record — into the zeitgeist in 1948, replacing shellac gramophone records, as noted by Print Your Vinyl. Invented by Peter Goldmark of CBS laboratories, the giant black discs we know and love are made of polyvinyl chloride, aka PVC. As explained by the Vinyl Institute, plastic materials exist via the conversion of "hydrocarbon-based raw materials" like petroleum, gas, and coal into synthetic polymers.

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More specifically, petroleum and saltwater are used to make polyvinyl chloride pellets, which are combined with "additives like fatty acids and carbon black," according to Print Your Vinyl.

Vinyl records are just another plastic product.

Are vinyl records bad for the environment?

In short, plastic production is bad. Because vinyl records are a petroleum-based product, their existence relies on crude oil. And while the U.S. Energy Information Administration noted that we need petroleum products to fuel airplanes and various automobiles, heat our homes, and even for the production of medicines, vinyl records aren't exactly a need.

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Exploring and drilling for oil can disrupt both land and marine ecosystems (especially in the context of offshore drilling), potentially harming animals and eradicating vegetation in the process. Plus, according to a 2023 study, toxic emissions destroy air quality, contributing to respiratory and cardiovascular issues in workers at oil facilities and residents in the area.

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Kyle Devine's 2020 article published by The Guardian disclosed that an unnamed vinyl pressing plant has "dozens of hydraulic machines [running] all day and night." As for sourcing the vinyl record ingredients, the article relayed that "more than half of the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used by today’s U.S. record manufacturers comes from the Thai Plastic and Chemicals Public Company Limited (TPC)."

Not only does PVC host carcinogenic chemicals like vinyl chloride (linked to liver cancer), but the production process creates toxic wastewater — a hazardous waste product Greenpeace alleged TPC has poured into Thailand's Chao Phraya River.

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What are compact discs made of?

Some of us have fond memories of popping a CD into a portable player. Unfortunately, aside from a super thin layer of metal, often aluminum or gold, and a clear protective layer of lacquer, the 1979 invention is mainly polycarbonate plastic, as per ThoughtCo.

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Are CDs bad for the environment?

The Mineral Education Coalition wrote that polycarbonate plastic comes from oil drilling, mined oil sands, or oil shale (a sedimentary rock) — all non-renewable resources.

To put things in perspective, eco-conscious tech company Nimble relayed that "approximately 300 cubic feet of natural gas, two cups of crude oil, and 24 gallons of water" are used for the production of just 30 CDs. Over one trillion CDs have been produced since 1982.

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Plus, toxic chemicals like bisphenol-A (BPA) are used in production, which can harm people (it's a known endocrine disruptor) and the environment via mismanagement and leaching, according to Recyledplastic.com.

We wish we could tell you that streaming is gentler on the planet, but The Guardian broke this illusion, writing that digital audio files are associated with "infrastructures of data storage, processing, and transmission that have potentially higher greenhouse gas emissions than the petrochemical plastics used in the production of more obviously physical formats."

Collectors and physical media enthusiasts, just go thrift some oldies!

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