The Environmental Impact of Streaming

Word by Georgina Hookway
Image courtesy of WWF

With this year’s Spotify Wrapped recently being released, all the focus has been on streaming services. An app which can store and download all your music onto your phone, as well as give you statistics to share on your Instagram story at the end of the year may seem ideal, but streaming services may not be the ideal music consumption solution that they’re made out to be. 

With music being the most intangible form of the arts, one might think that this would come hand in hand with minimal waste and pollution, however the opposite is true. The environmental impact of listening to music has always been high, and it has increased rapidly over the last few decades with the rise of streaming services. When streaming first came to fruition in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it seemed like the perfect solution to music consumption, being both accessible and low cost to the consumer.

Prior to the streaming boom in the 2010s, CDs, cassettes, and vinyl records were the designated form of music consumption. These physical forms of music didn’t come without their own problems, however; during the 2000s, more than 61 million kilograms of plastic waste was attributed to their production and disposal, which has done irreversible damage to the planet. In 2016, however, the amount of plastic credited to music consumption was down to 8 million kilograms, due to the popularity of streaming and the decline of physical copies of music.

Whilst there is less plastic pollution now being produced as a result of music streaming, the mass consumption of music is affecting the planet in different ways. The carbon emissions produced by the music industry are higher than ever; it is estimated that once converted into kilograms, the energy generated by streaming services to transmit music is around 350 million kilograms in the USA alone. 

For consumers, there isn’t a lot that can be done to reduce this. Whilst physical music copies are making a small comeback, with record players becoming popular again, it is unlikely that they’ll ever be as widely used as they were during their peak in the 1970s. Streaming is expected to remain a central part of our lives and the way we consume things, especially as we move into a post-pandemic world. 

We live in a world where low-cost mass consumption is the norm, so drastic changes in the music industry are improbable. If music consumption is going to become more environmentally friendly, pressure needs to be put on the industry rather than the consumer, as they hold the power and have the ability to take action in reducing the carbon emissions produced by music streaming.