Making Music Sustainable

How To Solve The Vinyl Industry’s Sustainability Problems

2017 marked the twelfth straight year of growth for vinyl album sales in the US, with a staggering 14.3 million units sold. In the UK, 4.1 million sales were recorded last year with 14% being reissues. We all know the industry from the outside looks bright and thriving, with a new generation of vinyl consumer able to buy newly released and reissued copies at Urban Outfitters, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. But while physical sales are helping revive a relationship with music that had mostly gone digital, the industry has struggled for the past couple of years to supply a mostly-obsolete product back to the masses. Consideration of the ecological impact of that product has been low on the list of priorities for labels, distributors, retailers and resellers.

Recycling Vinyl

The idea of recycling vinyl isn’t new. Labels like Chicago’s TRAX used recycled vinyl to press some of their 1980s releases, but the results were not always well received. Vinyl records are made from (PVC) pellets, which are melted and pressed into disc form. The material’s chemical and molecular attributes have a huge impact on the audible quality of music playback, and a disc made with low-grade or impure raw materials will sound terrible.

Andrew Grant of Brooklyn’s Halcyon record shop explains, “we work with the different pressing plants, and we give them vinyl, varying from used to new but unsold, and they recycle that vinyl by punching out the center and grinding it up to make new records.”

The key factor here is the condition of the records being recycled: current recycling methods require spotless and clean raw material in order for the recycled product to be as pure as possible. Simply put, your old, beat up dollar-bin finds may not be suitable for recycling, and manufacturing plants may not want anything to do with them! And this major stumbling block rules out a huge proportion of the unwanted vinyl floating around in people’s garages, attics and bottom shelves of record collections.

Not all vinyl is suitable for recycling: your dirty dollar-bin finds need thorough cleaning before they can be considered for the process. (Photo: Chris Mayes-Wright.)

Get Clean, Go Green

But what if there was a solution for large-scale vinyl washing that would take the dirty, unwanted records sitting on your shelf, and make them suitable for recycling, without compromising the quality of the material?

With recycling starting to catch on little by little, there’s room for an open conversation between labels, distribution, and pressing plants to each do their part and to make each step of the chain work together for the greater good. Large-scale, major labels who place massive orders and bottleneck these plants should also be responsible for turning over dead-stock and reducing their footprint. It would require a closer rapport with their large retailers, who presumably would be happy to clear up storage space to make room for new and exciting product.

Urban Outfitters clothing stores have been selling reissued records for several years, riding the vinyl comeback wave. (Photo: deathandtaxesmag.com.)

Smaller labels are the ones who struggle the most when it comes to pressing vinyl — the start-to-finish costs of physical releases can be a big challenge, mostly outweighed by the satisfaction of a physical presence at the most respected of shops and the promise of cult following. Andrew Grant understands this and hopes that with new technology, “minimum quantity numbers can be dropped. This can help labels who struggle to meet production minimums and later get stuck with product that doesn’t move. Maybe smaller labels can send their dead-stock to plants or some sort of exchange can be arranged to build stronger relationships and hopefully more eco-friendly solutions between labels, distributors, and manufacturers.”

For those who work with proper distribution to make sure their music reaches retailers, there’s an opportunity to perhaps have a more open conversation with the middleman as well. Some of the responsibilities of the Distributor include finding the right plant, moving the product to and fro, and at times sorting out packaging. This is where labels and distribution can work more closely together to figure out which plants have adopted recycling, where is it more cost efficient but also eco-friendly to press and ship from, or even streamlining the distribution process altogether to reduce excess. The workload won’t seem as heavy when it’s split between all parties involved, rather than relying on one step of the chain to be fully responsible for being accountable to the environment.

Shipping

An obvious area where there’s a lower barrier of entry for sustainability is where paper products come into play. The use of packaging has a large environmental impact but is also the easiest to set into a greener cycle. Recycled paper products are widely available in a variety of shapes and sizes, and the vinyl industry sure uses a lot of it.

One of NYC’s favorite and busiest record shops is Superior Elevation, located in the heart of Bushwick. Ellen Kanamori, a Brazilian transplant, runs the shop and agrees that “the majority of waste is in the shipping area. To ship a record we need mailers, cardboard pads, bubble wrap. And every time we order new mailers and new pads, they all come in a huge box. It’s all recyclable but it still adds waste.”

In an ideal world, an eco-conscious record industry would also be taking an interest into where its packaged material comes from. Currently, record mailers can be purchased from a variety of wholesalers such as Bags Unlimited, ULINE, and so on. But while many products are recycled, the buyer must do some digging to discover the source of the raw materials — this doesn’t exactly result in a more educated customer base. And therein lies the problem. Recycling can be adopted from the ground up — with a little help from wholesalers and suppliers to the industry. Some smaller manufacturers are already taking the lead. Canadian firm Duplication — who manufacture everything from vinyl records and CDs to custom USB memory sticks and posters — explicitly state when their supplies are made with 100% repurposed materials, and encourage others to follow suit.

The outgoing shipping station at Halcyon’s warehouse in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo: Chris Mayes-Wright.)

Re-use

The issue of re-using cardboard packaging brings up a point of contention. Some vendors may discourage the reuse of cardboard LP mailers, due to a concern that a re-used mailer may not be as strong as an unused one. Take for example the shipping instructions on the massive reselling network that is Discogs. Others will state that it’s fine to repurpose inserts and boxes without compromising the safe travel of their beloved records. But integrity of the shipped item always takes priority — especially if it is a particularly valuable collectors’ edition — so more often than not, a seller will choose to use new packing materials.

Ellen Kanamori makes a good point, “there is not much we can do. I need to make sure the record arrives extra safe, no matter where the packages goes. Otherwise, I lose money. The only way to truly ensure the safety is to use proper cardboard pads, bubble wrap, and sometimes double wrap it. It’s the safest way for me to bulletproof ship a $600 record so it arrives to its final destination”.

Responsible Packaging

How could the process of making a record be streamlined? From making and shipping test pressings, to printing labels, etc; it seems unreasonable to not want to see this as an ideal opportunity to reduce our footprint.

Romanticizing the most iconic album art comes with an environmental price, but there’s an increasing number of packaging companies who will favor sustainable practices and still deliver a beautiful, swoon-worthy album cover. Ross-Ellis, a large media packaging company based in Canada owned by the giant Transcontinental, states their business “recommends products, purchase materials and use production methods and practices that help protect the environment.” Initiatives may vary from using recycled byproducts, actively working to reduce waste, and reducing fuel consumption. Packaging companies should feel the responsibility to seek forest-friendly paper and board as another pillar to their sustainability practices. From there on, it’s up to the artists and labels to keep sustainability in mind when choosing a visual direction for physical releases.

Even though they understand there’s a level of waste within the shipping realm, the folks at Superior Elevation make up for it in other ways: cleaning cloths get washed instead of thrown out, records that aren’t fit for sale are put out for free or donated to local artists (and there’s plenty in their community) who will repurpose the vinyl to give it new life.

When it comes to leftover sleeves and jackets, Ellen mentions speaking to friend Renata Do Valle about repurposing old record covers for upcoming releases on her label, Hello Sailor. This is a great example of a grassroots initiative that wouldn’t seem too hard for other small labels to adopt and would be both eco-friendly and cost-efficient. Utilizing recycled jackets or repurposing existing ones could be an easy contribution to a larger effort to go green.

Keeping It Local

Small shops and labels often don’t have the financial freedoms that majors or larger businesses enjoy. Besides working actively to recycle vinyl, perhaps there’s more work that can be done to incorporate reuse of packaging or even utilizing recycled products for record covers. Some cities benefit from nearby manufacturing and are happy to keep production local, which in turns reduces the need for the product to travel vast distances in between (which also involves fossil fuels and more packaging for safety).

Keeping production local also makes it easier for labels to have a closer relationship with the plant itself. Perhaps new technology will make it easier for more plants of all sizes to crop up, reducing the stress of bottlenecks, and encouraging smaller businesses to partner up where it’s logical so that packaging, shipping, end-to-end production, distribution, and retail can become closer allies in the effort to reduce waste and pollution.

New Technologies

Some say the future of vinyl is in 3D printing, but there’s a lot of skepticism given that the final product isn’t yet sounding halfway decent. While there’s an effort on various fronts to crack the next exciting development in physical music, most lean towards reducing production inefficiencies and developing modern technology to cut down on waste and increase yields.

Industry rumors are ablaze about a new alleged ‘high definition’ vinyl product that could potentially yield higher audio fidelity and longer play per side. This “HD Vinyl” production method would also do away with “toxic chemicals used in the electroplating” process and introduce laser-cut grooves. Could this mean less PVC used in general? Skeptics and hopefuls alike will have to wait until October’s Making Vinyl conference in Detroit to hear for themselves.

Wanting to increase production is understandable, especially given the demand. The huge startup costs of setting up a record plant with old machinery is astronomical and incredibly difficult — the dinosaurs of lathes are not easy to come by. Yet, new pressing plants have cropped up all over Europe and North America… so who’s providing the machinery? With the hopes that tech advancements will increase efficiency, new companies like NEWBILT and Viryl Technologies have developed a new generation of record presses.

Viryl Technologies at the forefront of new tech development that will help plants meet the demand required to remain in business. Alex DesRoches, one of their reps, explains that “A lot of companies are still using old technology and presses from the ’70s or ’80s with very poor yields which results in a lot of waste. Now that there are new technology options it is possible to run an operation with much higher yields than 3 or 4 years ago.” A mix between the new and the old, in essence. He adds, “We use sensors to track the process from start to finish which help with temperature control, we have a very clean modern user interface, workflow advancements, and we’ve installed a cloud based software which allows us to offer streamlined serviceability for our clients and provide them with valuable analytics.”

A vinyl press for the 21st Century: Viryl Technologies’ WarmTone. It’s cleaner and more efficient than its predecessors; it can even be controlled by an iOS device! (Photo: http://www.viryltech.com/)

Musical Chemistry

More directly impacting the environment, however, is the chemical composition of the materials used in PVC, which is used to make vinyl records. Alex DesRoches explains that sustainability is a big part of the conversation: “PVC manufacturers are constantly taking steps to produce a more sustainable product. One of the big changes most of the industry has embraced is a move away from lead-based PVC to a more environmental friendly stabilizer in calcium. On top of this, a lot of plants are taking a modern approach to manufacturing by adding new technology and updating their infrastructure to promote lower power consumption and higher yields which reduce the amount of waste significantly.”

Perhaps it’s a bit grim to think of your favorite record as something that’s ultimately caused harm to the environment, but it’s important to ask ourselves the right questions in order to arrive to useful answers. According to a briefing paper for the Healthy Building Network by Joe Thornton, Ph.D, “PVC production is the largest use of chlorine gas in the world… and by-products of PVC production as highly persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic.” We see chemical waste and plastic bottles polluting our waters everywhere and it’s hard to picture our records contributing to that. But who is keeping tabs on our new favorite record not contributing to the damage done to the environment? In a boardroom somewhere, someone should be trying to answer this question.

The year is 2018 and the general population has become more aware of the dangers of pollution to our environment. The average American throws away approximately 185lbs (84kg) of plastic per year. Our oceans are filled with garbage, killing entire animal species, and PVC is listed as one of the most hazardous materials and even banned for certain uses in the European Union. The vinyl industry is thriving, our music communities are growing, and technology is looking for answers on the way forward. So perhaps the question that’s worth asking is: how has a generation that’s so aware of social and environmental issues become so obsessed with something made out of PVC and moved around the world in cardboard and plastic? And what are we going to do to continue supporting an industry that we’re part of, that we love, while holding it accountable for not damaging the only planet we have to live in. It’s a discussion that should go beyond Earth Day, beyond this article, and into the consciousness of music lovers around the globe.