How the Record Industry Is Trying to Make Vinyl More Environmentally Friendly

Last year, sales of vinyl records were at a 30-year high. But while the vinyl boom has been a bright spot for physical media lovers and the record industry alike, pressing vinyl poses a more urgent environmental concern than it did in the format’s heyday. At times, the process can seem almost antithetical to green living. Records are made of PVC, which comes from refined oil and can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in a landfill. Traditional pressing machines are powered by steam boilers that require fossil fuels to generate heat and pressure; the water used is treated with anti-corrosive chemicals in order to prevent rusting, thus creating more wastewater. And that’s just the pressing procedure.

Consider, then, vinyl’s packaging and distribution. While leading packaging companies like TC Transcontinental use recycled or sustainably sourced paper and cardboard, there’s no regulation forcing their competitors to take similar steps. The ink that’s used to print cover art and liner notes is traditionally solvent-based, meaning it contains volatile organic compounds that can contribute to the production of ozone. Once the record is encased in a beautiful jacket, it’s then shrink-wrapped in plastic wrap before boarding a gas-burning, carbon-emitting truck to ship. Suddenly the listener’s choice to buy physical music shifts from an action that helps sustain an artist’s career, to one that potentially threatens broader sustainability.

While some big-name artists have experimented with environmental offset initiatives—Pink Floyd donated proceeds from 2001’s Echoes to help plant four new indigenous forests, Coldplay did something similar with mango trees for 2002’s A Rush of Blood to the Head—such gestures have remained out of reach for many independent musicians and labels, both logistically and financially. But through recent innovations like steamless record presses and the growing ubiquity of carbon offset projects, there are more ways than ever to put out vinyl and still be eco-conscious.

In March, Canadian producer (and environmental toxicologist) Jayda G released her debut album, Significant Changes, via the indie label Ninja Tune. On the back jacket of the vinyl version, the fine print states that the record’s packaging is carbon neutral, meaning that the emissions generated are offset since the album reduces CO2 emissions in another part of the world. In this case, record sales help fund a clean water project in Odisha, India, where people usually burn open fires to sanitize their drinking water. According to ClimatePartner, Significant Changes has offset 1,024 kilograms of CO2 to date.

Even before issuing Significant Changes, Ninja Tune had been trying to make their records in a more environmentally friendly way, said Sean Preston, the London-based label’s head of manufacturing. This meant cutting down on single-use plastics, PVC dust bags, stickers, and toxic varnishes that add a glossy finish to record jackets. Considering the conservation-related concepts at the heart of Significant Changes, the album “kicked us up the arse a little bit” when it came to finding climate-neutral options, he added. Some steps of the vinyl production process are simply out of a label’s hands, however. “One of the first things we tried looking at was shrink wrap replacement,” Preston said. “You could not use shrink wrap at all, but the problem with that is, quite a few territories in Europe will do shrink wrap themselves. Just because we’re not doing it doesn’t mean someone else down the chain won’t… We’re not only trying to change ourselves—we’re trying to change the way people do business.”

On the pressing plant side of things, the Toronto startup Viryl Technologies introduced, in 2017, one of the first newly designed (rather than rehabbed) models since the 1980s, called the WarmTone. At the top of this year, Viryl launched a steamless option, which is powered by electricity instead of water pressure and can be retrofitted to any Viryl press. According to co-founder Chad Brown, there’s not a drastic performance difference between the company’s steamless and steam-powered options. “Steam is very good for heating record molds rapidly, so you’ll get a slightly faster cycle time,” Brown said. “With steam, a 24- to 28-second cycle time is achievable. Steamless, we hit 31 seconds.”

Putting aside about a five-second lag, there are some economic benefits to steamless presses. You don’t have to hire someone to maintain the boiler, and your water bill goes way down. (The whole system feasibly could run on renewable energy, assuming the pressing plant committed to solar power or wind energy.) Brown claims that Viryl’s steamless presses have been selling rapidly at $200,000 a pop, mostly to boutique pressing companies with only one to three machines. These are small operations compared North America’s largest plant, Nashville’s United Record Pressing, which boasts 38 traditional presses and can churn out over 60,000 records a day.

One such boutique pressing company, Chicago’s Smashed Plastic, launched in February with a single steamless model from Viryl. According to co-founder Andy Weber, the company faced a logistical nightmare before discovering the non-traditional option: If they wanted to get a boiler built, they were going to need approval from the city and have an engineer on duty at all times. Steamless, essentially, made their business viable. The company has serviced mostly Chicago indie labels (Feeltrip Records, Midwest Action) and local DIY bands—which adds another layer of sustainability. “The best part is, everybody we’ve done business with comes and picks up their records,” Weber said.

With steamless systems being so new, it’s unrealistic to expect instant ubiquity, particularly among larger plants. But there are ways to act sustainably without replacing every press. Record Technologies Inc. in Camarillo, California, has been operating since 1972 on a traditional boiler setup. Due in part to Southern California’s mandated smog checks, the company uses clean-burning natural gas, rather than traditional fossil fuel, to power their system. “We’ve had more stringent regulations to abide by, but part of it is also because we want to be more responsible,” said RTI plant manager Rick Hashimoto. “It’s for the good of everyone.”

Jack White’s eight-press Third Man plant in Detroit launched in 2017 with a closed-loop water system, which minimizes wastewater through recycling. For now, they use steam-powered but relatively energy-efficient Newbilt presses. “Electric presses definitely have our attention,” added Third Man production manager (and White’s brother) Eddie Gillis via email.

As word continues to spread, Brown remains hopeful about the rise of sustainable vinyl practices. “We’re fully expecting artists and labels to start asking for their vinyl to be pressed on steamless,” he said, adding that Viryl has partnered with a yet-to-be-announced major-label artist on a mobile steamless pressing plant. It’s slated to roll out in Nashville at the end of May, and from there will be available for use at stadium shows, festivals, and wherever else people might want to buy some vinyl.

While artists have the power to bring awareness to new green practices, a responsibility also falls on listeners to potentially pay a little more for eco-friendly products. Stoughton Printing, a California-based music packaging company, has long taken financial risks so that their record sleeves would be both high quality and sustainably made. Their president Jack Stoughton, Jr. raises a good point: “If you, the consumer, are willing to lay down $40 for a top-notch record today, whether the jacket cost 25 cents more really doesn’t make a difference to you.”