How to be a more environmentally-friendly vinyl collector

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that vinyl has been enjoying a resurgence in recent years. Good news, yeah? Well, there is a cost...

The environmental impact of vinyl on the planet is one of the music industry's (many) dirty little secrets. Last year alone over 4 million new vinyl records were purchased, and while for many of us the resurgent infatuation with vinyl is obviously a good thing its effects reach far beyond the shops, clubs and collections of our fair isle. Considering the average LP weighs about 135g, 4 million vinyl records represents over 550 tonnes of our favourite black plastic - with all its associated energy and environmental costs - at a time when we should all be thinking about reducing our carbon (and plastic) footprints.

From shellac to PVC

During the first half of the 20th century, before our beloved 33 and 45s, the 78 was King. Commonly held together by shellac, a sticky compound derived from insects, 78s were fragile and required larger grooves to store their soundwaves accurately. When polyvinyl chloride (PVC) records swanned onto the scene in the early 50s they enabled a much smoother, narrower groove and could be rotated at the slower speeds we all recognise today. These factors combined enabled each PVC record to hold 20ish minutes of music per side, compared to the 4–5 minutes of a shellac record.

In a world of infinite resource and unchangeable climate there wouldn’t be much more to add. Forget grinding up today's insects. Just dig up the fossilised ones from the Cambrian Period. PVC is better than shellac. Next!

However PVC, like most plastics, is derived from crude oil - and as we’re all increasingly aware dredging up animal and plant matter from previous epochs is throwing our planet's vital life systems out of whack.

The sheer magnitude of elements and processes that have to come together from every corner of the world to produce one little record is simply staggering. From the ink used to decorate sleeves to the diamonds that tip our styluses. Even the comparatively small amount of energy used to record a track and subsequently play it all adds up.

As such, your vinyl habit may not be quite up there with something like a U2 world tour in terms of harmful environmental impact. But neither is it great for the environment. So what should you do?

The digital Catch-22

Streaming to the rescue, right? Maybe not.

The vinyl vs streaming comparison isn’t easy, and there are conflicting views and statistics. As previously mentioned, any given record is the product of countless processes, all with their own ecological costs. Streaming, however, isn’t the magical solution some believe it to be either. Cloud computing is environmentally dangerous too. YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud - all depend on a network of energy-intensive server farms, mammoth fibre-optic cables laid on precious ocean beds, rare metals destructively mined for computers, routers, iPhones, etc. One study claims that streaming an album over the internet 25+ times may actually use more energy than the manufacturing of a physical album on CD.

In other words, whilst a physical album has a higher upfront cost of production it may have a lower footprint over time, requiring only enough electrical energy for physically spinning the inert record (or CD) and providing its amplification. Streaming reduces the upfront production but makes increased demands over time, with storage, retrieval and global transmission of computer files required for each and every play. As energy production decarbonises the environmental impact of streaming - and cloud computing in general - will reduce. But until computers are made from fresh air and require nothing more than sunlight to run, streaming will always have an environmental cost too.

Reduce, repair, recycle, reuse, resell

Just because streaming is no panacea doesn't exonerate vinyl though. What can we actually do to reduce the footprint of a vinyl habit?

Well, the very first thing to do would be to cut back on vinyl purchases. As a record shop we don't want you to do this, obviously. This is our livelihood. But let's be logical here. We are selling and you are buying oil, not lentils. As such, it is at least possible that your vast collection of vinyl won't become the prized heirloom you imagine passing on to future generations but, rather, an embarrassing reminder of the plastic-obsessed lives we revelled in for so long. Next time you're wondering whether you really need that third LP this week ask yourself, "What would Greta Thunberg do?"

The next thing is to take care of the records that you do buy. With proper cleaning, proper storage and even the occasional repair you should never need to buy any record more than once. Yes, some of those processes require even more chemicals and equipment. But prevention is better than cure.

As is, quite simply, lowering your standards. Cosmetic damage to a record can, if you put your mind to it, simply be ignored. Crumpled corners, for example, are annoying but don't really necessitate replacing an entire record. Even warping is something that can often be ignored - if it doesn't affect playback, and isn't getting any worse, then hold off on replacing it.

What of the records that are beyond repair, or that you absolutely cannot bear to keep near you anymore?

First, and obviously, if they are still playable then pass them on to someone who may want them. Many local charity shops now do a decent trade in used vinyl and will be glad to take them off your hands (as long as they're not wrecked). Discogs and Ebay are always worth checking just in case you have something that might just sell. And if you know anyone who sells at car boot sales, offer your unwanted wax to them or go along yourself - they're still a haunt for certain vinyl collectors.

As for recycling...well, it's complicated. The official advice from RecycleNow is that you're making a mistake if you're lobbing your old records into the green bin. Adding them to your kerbside collection simply contaminates that collection. PVC records are not recyclable.

Well, that's not quite true. There are specialist vinyl recycling places that will accept them, but the difficult physical processes involved require scale. So we're talking bulk quantities here - industrial amounts, rather than domestic. As such, whilst its cardboard sleeve and paper dust protector is usually fine to recycle your warped-beyond-repair Boards Of Canada LP is, sadly, probably destined for landfill.

That is, unless you can find some other way to reuse it. Walk through any market in the land (or simply head over to Etsy) and you’ll find weird and wonderful things crafted from old records - bowls, clocks, bookends, framed artwork. If you're not handy or artsy enough to make things like this yourself then maybe offer your unwanted vinyl to someone who is?

A note for our local customers

Know who deals in near-industrial amounts of vinyl? We do.

Bring us your old and unwanted vinyl and we'll dispose of it for you. Anything that's still worth selling we'll hand over to a charity shop. Anything that's not worth selling we'll cart over to Van Werven in Selby who'll break it down into reusable PVC pellets.

The future of vinyl manufacturing

For most of the past century creating a new record has involved casting an aluminum platter before heating the PVC in a press to form the vinyl disc. First devised in the 50s, this method of production not only consumes vast amounts of energy but the continual force used by this process causes wear on the stampers, meaning they have to be replaced frequently.

Step forward Dutch CD manufacturer Symcon, who have devised a method in which a pre-heated plastic mixture is injected into the mould where it cools and sets. As no pressure is used on the stampers, they last considerably longer. It may not quite live up to their promise of "an environmentally friendly alternative production process for vinyl records" but, overall, this method is estimated to use 65% less energy and has received grants from the European Union to help make the technology more readily available.

Why on earth does this matter? Because awareness of it matters. The sooner your favourite labels and artists start to ask for their vinyl to be produced using these greener technologies, the sooner we can all start to feel a little less guilty about our vinyl addiction.

Go 'Plastic Neutral'

Plastic Bank takes plastic waste and turns it into a currency, offering above-market rates for plastic items to incentivise people to collect it and stop it entering the seas.

Now, whatever you think of offsetting - some may say it's a tokenistic act of conscience-cleansing greenwashing that stymies real action - it's always worth considering pragmatic solutions. And this one has the promise of helping to alleviate poverty too:

Offset your guilt (like we do)

We realise that as a purveyor of what is essentially a luxury, oil-based product that we ship via vans, lorries and planes worldwide Norman Records cannot claim anything like 'Plastic Neutrality'. But that's not to say that we aren't worried about it, and as such we have offset each of our employees via Plastic Bank.

Plastic Neutral Workforce

Donate some NormanPoints

And you can help too.

As regular customers know, every £1 you spend here at Norman Records earns 1p in NormanPoints. Rather than spending these on future vinyl purchases you can 'donate' them, via us, to Plastic Bank. We will then use them to buy their Social Plastic Collection Credits and thereby help to support the infrastructure they're building. With over 70% of these credits spent or kept in the local economies where the actual waste plastic collection takes place you can be sure your NormanPoints aren't just being wasted.

Since May 10th 2019, our customers have given up 384880 NormanPoints, enabling the purchase of £384.88 of Social Plastic Collection Credits, allowing the collection and recyclying of approx. 128.29kg of plastic waste.

To summarise...

So, just to be clear, there are no magic solutions here. Vinyl comes from oil. Oil is dirty. Your vinyl habit is dirty. You are dirty. But there are things you can do to become a more eco-conscious collector.

  • Buy less vinyl. From other shops, of course, not us.
  • Look after it to ensure you don’t buy the same record twice.
  • Never throw unwanted vinyl away: either gift it, sell it to someone who wants it, or get creative.
  • Recycle the bits that can be recycled. (If you live near Leeds bring it to us and we'll do it for you.)
  • Convert your NormanPoints into Social Plastic Collection Credits.
  • Raise your awareness of the companies addressing the problem, and exert your consumer pressure.

Our environmental impact

Learn more about the steps we're taking to reduce our environmental impact. They're small steps, relative both to our own impact and the global challenge. But we think they're important.