Thanks to the wide adoption of mobile electronics these days, it’s easier than ever to bring your favorite music with you wherever you go. Despite the thrill of being able to construct an ’80s workout mix while waiting for the bus, downloading a song will never deliver the tangible thrill of holding the newest record or CD from your favorite band. If you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint and the amount of material stuff inside your home, however, the idea of downloading versus owning physical media has an undeniable draw. That got me thinking about which style of media really has the smallest impact on the planet, and I was surprised to learn that not everyone is in agreement about the greenest way to buy music.
digital downloads graph
Image courtesy of TerraPass
First, let’s compare the digital downloads that are so popular today with the media that they most recently replaced: the CD. According to a 2009 life cycle analysis commissioned by the Microsoft and Intel corporations, downloading music digitally creates less than one-sixth the carbon emissions of buying it from a retail store. The study showed that even when an album is digitally downloaded and burned to a CD with a jewel case and printed label, the carbon footprint is still smaller than buying it in a retail store (mostly because you’re not driving anywhere to get that single CD, as opposed to buying blank CDs and labels in bulk in a single trip). OK, so buying music in its digital form definitely better than buying the CD at the record store. But wait, there’s more! Downloading music means that although you don’t have to store a physical object containing songs you love, someone, somewhere has to store and maintain a server that keeps all those iTunes files and mp3s ready at a moment’s notice; i.e., the Cloud. These data centers require an enormous amount of energy to remain operational, and when you download digital music, you’re also taking on a portion of that carbon footprint. Take for instance Apple’s newest cloud computing center in North Carolina. Not only did it cost $1 billion to build, but it’s also powered by enough coal-fired energy to power 80,000 homes in the U.S., and 250,000 in Europe. Ubergizmo writes: “Vinyl on the other hand produces much more environmentally friendly ‘footprints’ according to a recent argument by a vinyl manufacturer — Alpha Music Manufacturing, who has come up with several reasons why going the vinyl route may actually prove to be more ‘green.’” It’s true that vinyl records are often treasured as collectors’ items, despite the introduction of more advanced media, which means they are rarely thrown out. Album manufacturing companies, especially in less developed countries where they’re still popular, are also known to shred vinyl that has not been sold and recycle it for other recordings, meaning less vinyl will have to be produced. And even when it is thrown away vinyl, unlike plastic, can be broken down better naturally.

Chime in: What do you think? New CDs seem like they’re out, but is vinyl more eco-friendly than digital music?