The Environmental Impact of Streaming

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In recent years, digital streaming has almost entirely replaced physical methods of music consumption.  Just a few years ago, I remember begging my parents to take me to HMV the day my favourite artists’ albums were released to buy their CDs, but now it’s all there at the tap of a screen.

The top music streaming services in the UK – including Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Tidal, Amazon Music and YouTube Music – attract millions of users.  Spotify hits 286 million active users worldwide every month, 130 million of whom are paying Spotify Premium subscribers.  The world has become dependent on having their favourite tunes constantly at their fingertips, and I’m no different.

I actively use Spotify for several hours every single day – while I’m working, cooking, cleaning or just chilling out.  I’m even using it while writing this.  When I’m out and forget my headphones, I feel like I’ve been torn apart from the integral soundtrack of my day.  It sounds dramatic, but I’m not sure I could live without accessible music streaming anymore, and many people are the same.

The effects of this addiction are more far-reaching than many of us realise.  While increased streaming has cut down on the waste created by the production of CDs and cassettes, with the amount of plastic used to make physical records dropping from 61 million kilograms in the 2000s to around 8 million kilograms in 2016, streaming leads to a colossal amount of greenhouse gas emissions.  Even though it’s hard to conceptualise, streaming an album over 27 times actually uses more energy than it does to produce and manufacture a CD.

While plastic usage in the music industry has dropped, greenhouse gas emissions have increased from approximately 157 million kilograms per year in the 2000s to an estimated 200 to 350 million kilograms now due to the requirements of streaming services.  Shockingly, researchers from the European Commission found in 2017 that the 4.6 billion streams that ‘Despacito’ by Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber amassed in a year had used as much electricity as the annual electricity consumption of Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic combined.

A study by the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo has in fact concluded that streaming music has a more detrimental environmental impact than physical mediums, despite entailing no physical waste on the part of the consumer.  Dr Kyle Devine, an Associate Professor in Music at the University of Oslo who was involved in the research, explains: “the transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music.”

The reasoning behind this is twofold.  First, huge super-computers are required to store every individual user’s search histories, playlists and downloads in massive central data centres.  These centres get so hot, what with all the discs spinning constantly, that fans are running non-stop to ensure they don’t overheat, piling up a huge energy usage.  Second, for our downloads to be accessible through our phones and computers they need to be played or downloaded through our personal Wi-Fi networks and routers, using yet more electricity.

These are factors we simply forget about when, to us, all our music is stored compactly on our devices.  Sharon George, an Environmental Science lecturer at Keele University, reminds us that “people can’t assume that just because something doesn’t have a physical format, that it’s got no carbon attached to it”.  We have to commit to being responsible consumers while enjoying our tunes.

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