Downloading Your Music: Good For the Environment
Downloading Your Music: Good For the Environment
Downloading Your Music: Good For the Environment

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    According to the RIAA CD sales peaked in 2000 when 942.5 million units were shipped in the United States alone. Since then, physical CD sales have been in a steep decline: in 2001 881.9 CDs were sold, in 2003 746 million, and in 2006 just 614.9 million. Consumers are getting their music from other sources: online music stores (as of late July, iTunes alone had sold over 3 billion songs), piracy, ad-supported sites, MySpace, and promotional free releases. We've devoted numerous posts to how these new sources will change the music industry, but I'd like to focus briefly on how minimizing CDs' use will change the environment.

    CDs and DVDs are made from a variety of materials: lacquer, aluminum, and thin strips strips, but most of all polycarbonate resin, which constitutes about 98% of an average disc's weight. Polycarbonate is the perfect material for a CD because of its optical properties and its resistance to both high stress and high temperatures. But those same properties make it a problem for the environment: CDs may scratch or shatter, but they're less likely to decompose.

    Furthermore, the breakdown of polycarbonate could have long term health impacts. When CDs come into contact with bleach or other alkalis they can release Bisphenol A, a chemical which may cause breast cancer.

    And despite CDs potentially long life spans, most people don't keep many of their albums for very long (when's the last time you listed to Jagged Little Pill?). According to the CD Recycling Center of America, some 100,000 pounds of CDs are thrown away per month.

    So briefly, if CD sales had remained perfectly steady since 2000, we would have seen 1,136,500,000 more CDs on the market. That is 39 million pounds of polycarbonate CDs saved and 150 million pounds of polystyrene jewel cases saved. That's a vertical stack of CDs over 7,000 miles high and a horizontal row stretching from New York to Tokyo, with 300 miles to spare.

    These facts illustrate that what's good communications and copyright policy is often good environmental policy, and that the companies who stall on communications reform are often (inadvertently or not) also stalling on environmental reform. Activists and academics who work on these issues should consider how collaboration could benefit both groups.