Arts

Digital vs. Disc: An environmental, musical dilemma

Vinyl and CDs may seem like an archaic item that are also bad for the environment. But are our cherished streaming devices any better in the long run?

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When I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon for me to buy two or three CDs in a week. With several music stores in the area, there was no shortage of CDs both old and new. 

In recent years, records have made their triumphant return to the arena of relevance as well. Once considered an archaic tool with which to listen to older classics, younger generations have found a passion for collecting vinyl. 

Modern music producers have capitalized on this fad, releasing albums by new artists on vinyl records. CDs are also still regularly manufactured and purchased by consumers, but a mass migration toward streaming and downloading has put both the record and compact disc on notice.

Why bother buying a hard copy that requires a specific device with which to play it when you can download a song or album to your phone or just stream it from an application? Surely, digital is also the more environmentally friendly choice, right?

All three methods of listening to music have their drawbacks, as it turns out. But which is better for the earth in the long run?

Electronic-waste, or E-waste, is a term not too many people are familiar with. However, the definition is not hard to comprehend. 

According to CalRecycle, E-waste is simply that: a popular, informal name for electronic products nearing the end of their useful life. Many of these products can be reused, refurbished or recycled. 

Unfortunately, most of these technologies are disposed of improperly. This includes televisions, computers, CDs and records; anything and everything that gives out is discarded and ends up in landfills not only here, but also in developing countries around the world.

Records were once made of a more eco-friendly material that contributed to a smaller carbon footprint, but as they were prone to damage, the music industry moved onto the vinyl material still widely used today.

However, the vinyl records that are improperly discarded will end up outliving the very dumpsite in which they inhabit, often leaking out environmentally damaging solvents and chemicals.

CDs emerged in the 1980s, offering consumers better audio quality as well as a more durable product. Since they required few materials, which were also less harmful to the environment, the future looked brighter. 

But the CD is rather frail. Early CDs were incredibly vulnerable to warping, scratching and defectiveness. They are also expensive to break down to their basic components with which to recycle, meaning most CDs end up in the trash anyway.

So now we move on to the modern age of Pandora, Spotify and iTunes: what would seem to be an environmentally conscious person’s musical utopia.

Streaming requires no hard copy at all. If you have a device with which to access mobile data or Wi-Fi, one can travel virtually anywhere and access their favorite song or album.

This means streaming wins, right?

Not so fast. Yes, there is no record or disc ending up incorrectly thrown away in this scenario. But the environmental impact left by streaming is not the physical copy left behind; it’s the energy consumed when a user streams a song or album to their device. These files are kept safely on servers, but often not near the user. 

To stream a song, the information is sent from this server across the network and accessed via Wi-Fi or mobile data. This consumes energy, which costs money.

The devices we use to stream these songs are often improperly disposed of as well, and produced in unnecessarily large quantities.

For example, in 2012, nearly 700 million smartphone units were sold worldwide. The average U.S. citizen will keep a cell phone for around a year and a half, whether their device breaks, is traded in or is simply lost or disposed of.

Sixty percent of all electronic technology is wasted, and the U.S. produces more than 3 million tons of E-waste annually.

Around half of Africa’s E-waste is from its own residents, but this means the other half is intentionally dumped and burned in the poorer nations of the continent.

That’s right — we pay to ship trash and discarded technologies to less developed nations, depositing the waste in lots and dumps which are often located near people’s homes.

So if one was to purchase a smartphone, use it to stream songs and then dispose of it improperly, the environmental impact is just as bad, if not worse, than that of a CD or record.

Streaming certainly has its advantages. But clearly, it is by no means a perfect fix.

So, what are we supposed to do? What’s better for the environment?

Downloading is a method that, as it turns out, may be the best option for consumers and our planet alike.

When a song or album is downloaded from a distant server to a local hard drive or directly onto phones, much less energy is consumed and required to play it. The file is there at the ready.

At the end of the day, there are still pros and cons to each method. Everything requires an additional device, be it a record player, Walkman or modern smart technology. 

Records aren’t going anywhere, and CDs are still going to be made. Perhaps one day we will fully move to a world of streaming and digital access. But many are holding out, cherishing older forms of media.

If you love vinyl or CDs, treat them well and never dispose of them improperly. If you favor streaming, maybe consider downloading to save energy. Try not to waste the device you use to play your music and always try to repair broken devices over disposing of them whenever possible. Recycle your technology at locations safely designated to do so.

An awareness of what you are buying, using or disposing of will be better for the environment all around. The dilemma of what form of media to use to listen to your favorite music is irrelevant as long as one is environmentally conscious and aware of the impact of these forms of media.

The planet pays for our overindulgences and wastefulness.



 John Everman is an arts editor for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.

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