Tunes & Trade-offs: How to minimize your ecological footprint when it comes to music

Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Your prized Bob Dylan vinyl suffers a fatal scratch. You clean out your childhood closet and uncover all your N*SYNC and Hanson CDs. Before you toss them, here’s one thing to consider: Mother Nature doesn’t want your music junk, either.

The EPA has estimated that 100,000 pounds of CDs become unwanted by consumers each month—and much of it is destined for incinerators or landfills. Although we may think of physical media as becoming obsolete, it will take centuries for most forms of music to disappear from the Earth.

Keeping our music junk out of our closets, and more importantly, out of our landfills, starts with one trusty axiom: reduce, reuse, recycle.

Reduce: Opt for streaming

Downsizing your musical carbon footprint starts with considering the big picture of the products you buy and the impact they have on the earth.

“We would encourage people to think about the whole lifecycle of this music,” says Madalyn Cioci, a waste and pollution prevention specialist at Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “Generally, I think people should be thoughtful about what they buy and how they buy it.”

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Because most of the environmental impact comes from production of physical copies, streaming or buying music online may be better for Mother Earth. Materials including aluminum, polycarbonate, lacquer, and gold are pooled together and processed to form discs, which are packaged in plastic jewel cases and shrink wrap, and delivered by truck or airplane to a store, where the consumer often drives to pick it up.

“If you’re going to the thrift stores and used record stores, more power to you. It’s already been made. Its footprint has already happened. But if you’re somebody who’s trying to get the latest music […] you might think about doing a digital download,” Cioci says.

A 2010 study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology found that purchasing digital music reduces energy use and carbon dioxide emissions by 40 to 80 percent, compared to buying physical discs online or at the store. And if you still need that physical product in your hand, downloading music and burning it onto your own CD can use 65 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than ordering an album online.

And make sure to keep your equipment tuned up. Hennepin County offers Fix-It Clinics on a near monthly basis in different locations across the metro, where experts can help you learn how to fix up that old cassette or record player to extend the life of your physical albums.

Reuse: Get creative

The life of a CD

Of course, digital streaming isn’t an appealing alternative to many vinyl enthusiasts. As the old school form of physical media experiences a resurgence, it’s worth remembering that because the records are made from polyvinyl chloride, they are largely unrecyclable.

For Cloud Cult’s latest release, “The Seeker” in 2016, the band took a stab at greener vinyl. They worked with a manufacturing company that ground up old vinyl records and made them into new ones. But the reground vinyl garnered criticism from fans, who said the albums had lower fidelity. So Cloud Cult has gone back to just staying away from vinyl altogether.

“If we turned all our discography into vinyl we could make some good money right now because we’ve got a lot of people requesting that. But with the way we’ve built the environmental ethics of our business, we just don’t feel right about that,” lead singer Craig Minowa says.

This makes buying used records, and finding creative ways to reuse old ones, a must for the eco-conscious vinyl lover, because scratched records dropped off at secondhand music retailers will most likely just be thrown away. Instructions for crafts made from old tapes, CDs, and vinyl are boundless across the internet, with projects including lamps, business card holders, wall decals, and furniture.

If you’re not the craft type, artists across the country may be looking for your music junk. Utah-based artist Jesse Amaya cuts up vinyl and attaches the pieces to leather to make belts and cuffs, with each one highlighting album art. Here in Minnesota, there are also creative materials reuse centers, which sell unwanted household and other unique items that can live on as art. The St. Paul–based center ArtStarts takes donations by appointment Monday through Wednesday for use in its ArtScraps program.

Recycle? Or shift your perspective

Ready to retire your cassette collection? The plastic cartridges from cassette tapes are recyclable; however, the magnetic tape itself is not. If your CD has suffered one scratch too many and you’re not into arts and crafts, there are a handful of operations, like Washington-based GreenDisk, that recycle disc media. The company works with nonprofits to grind up CDs and sell the materials for reuse. However, sending your old CDs to one of these recycling centers does mean more carbon dioxide emissions will be created from shipping.

If your music consumption is still weighing on your environmental conscience, consider shifting your perspective. There are trade-offs you can make in your lifestyle, like driving less or eating less red meat, that can help offset your increased carbon footprint in meaningful ways.

That’s a strategy Cloud Cult knows well. The band seeks to offset carbon and energy emissions for each record and tour. Craig Minowa says they plant four times as many trees as needed to absorb their calculated carbon dioxide emission, since some trees are likely to not reach their full life cycle. The band also donates to Native Energy, which uses the funds to build wind turbines that profit the Native American reservations that host them.

Related Post: So Much Energy in Us: How Cloud Cult stays committed to the environment

“You kind of see the grid as a big battery, and if you took something out over here, you can always put something back in over there,” Minowa says.

Of course, some pollution will be created regardless of how you consume your music. If you’re looking to limit your footprint, examining how you consume is a good place to start. Remember to consider how long your tapes, discs and vinyls can last on this earth, and when you’re done with them, there are a variety of alternatives to tossing them in the garbage.

And it’s important to not let the news of a hurting planet diminish your optimism for helping it, Minowa says. “I think because there’s so much negative news about all the environmental stuff that as a consumer you get overwhelmed and are like, well, we’re screwed anyway. But in actuality, there’s a lot of great developments and that development can only be fueled by hope and optimism.”

 
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