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24 January 2024

The next vinyl crisis

Vinyl sales are booming – but manufacturing records uses toxic plastic and vast amounts of energy. Will the industry ever be sustainable?

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In a 15th-century prison in the Dutch city of Leeuwarden lies the world’s greenest vinyl record manufacturing plant – or so its owners claim. Until recently, the existence of a company like Deepgrooves would have sounded implausible. Who would think of setting up a pressing plant in a city centre, and in the digital age?

But today, Deepgrooves makes sense. Since the beginning of the vinyl revival in 2007, sales of the format have boomed. Approximately 5.5 million vinyl records were sold in the UK in 2022, while in the US that number was more than 40 million, or more than half of all physical album sales. While the vinyl renaissance began as a nostalgia drive for vintage records from previous eras, contemporary artists are now vital for this $16 million global market. In 2022 Taylor Swift’s Midnights was the bestselling vinyl record globally. The American singer knows just how covetable physical copies of her records are for her devoted fans: Midnights is available to buy on vinyl in six different colour varieties.

In an industry in which artists are increasingly struggling to make a living from music sales (a Spotify stream is worth just a fraction of a cent), selling vinyl is a sensible financial move. But while the demand for vinyl is high, manufacturing techniques have hardly changed since the 1970s. And the process – a “puck” of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is melted at high temperature and high pressure, pressed with a stamper, and then quickly cooled so that it sets – requires vast amounts of energy. 

Greenpeace calls PVC “the single most environmentally damaging of all plastics”. Its production releases toxic wastewater, it is non-biodegradable and burning it releases toxins that are harmful to humans. In principle, PVC is reusable. But it must be recycled at specialist centres, and even then the plastic can only be broken down into smaller pellets, which are then further processed and used primarily in the construction industry.

In recent years prices have risen sharply. Demand for vinyl soared during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the war in Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis led to supply bottlenecks, leaving pressing plants constantly raising their prices. This is already making the process unfeasible for many manufacturers. Will the industry ever be sustainable?

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Chris Roorda​ pictured at the Deepgrooves plant. Photo courtesty of Deepgroves.

“In the very beginning, we were not there to make eco products, but to make music in a conscious way,” says Chris Roorda, the CEO of Deepgrooves. A former DJ, he bought and sold second-hand records before he decided to set up his own label, Deeptrax, which specialises in electronica and left-field dance music. But once he began dealing with pressing plants, Roorda became “very pissed”. Large plants typically favour major label pressings, as bigger runs are more profitable. “I was annoyed at how we were being served.” He thought: “We can do that far better.” 

So in 2017 he set up a small press in the heart of his home city. Six years on, he employs 30 people and runs three machines, producing more than 1 million vinyl records each year, primarily for independent labels. The former prison of Blokhuispoort is now a business and cultural hub, and is also home to other creative businesses, pop-up shops and a library.

While Roorda did not set out to make a “green” plant, he soon realised that environmental sustainability comes hand in hand with financial efficiency. All the machines at Deepgrooves are powered by solar and wind energy from local suppliers and biomass is used for heating. Any incorrectly pressed records are broken back down into granules to be pressed again. Deepgrooves still makes records with PVC, but its granulate is based on calcium zinc, which contains non-toxic stabilisers. In 2024 Roorda plans to introduce a new granulate, which should reduce the carbon footprint by a further 90 per cent. “I’m not holier than the Pope,” he says, “but we are taking complete responsibility.” 

Two hundred kilometres south of Leeuwarden, in Asten, close to Eindhoven, lies another hub of environmental record manufacturing. Though Harm Theunisse, the owner of Green Vinyl Records, believes his business is set apart from the rest: “People say ‘We are green,’ but they’re still lighting up the boiler. If you light up that boiler, you’re using a lot of CO2. And they do ‘bio-this’, ‘bio-that’, but it’s still making it the old-fashioned way. We are doing it in a completely different way.”

Theunisse previously worked in the CD business, and his innovative approach to record-making borrows from the compact disc industry. At Green Vinyl Records, which started production in 2022, he has abandoned PVC altogether. Instead he uses polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which, unlike PVC, is totally recyclable. He has patented a fully-automated machine, which uses less than 0.2kWh of energy to make a single record – a reduction of 70 per cent compared to the traditional process.

Theunisse knows that vinyl connoisseurs – whose love for the format is wrapped up with ritual and nostalgia – might not like his new alternative. But he isn’t fazed. “There are people who will always love PVC. They will always say it’s better. Good for them! The market is big enough for all of us. Everybody, live and let live.” His product has however already convinced the English star Tom Odell, the American singer Richard Marx and the German artist Katja Kaye, who have all had records pressed at his plant. But sound quality will always be a sticking point for vinyl aficionados. After all, part of the appeal of the analogue experience is tonal warmth and depth. And if you’ve paid hundreds of pounds for a top-notch stereo system, you’ll want to make sure the records you’re spinning have the quality to match. 

It isn’t yet possible to predict which of these technical developments will be most successful on the mass market. What is clear is that at the intersection of technical know-how, care for the environment and a love of music lies real innovation. 

“Sustainability is not only about efficiency,” explains Roorda of Deepgrooves. “It’s also about making a very good product, which the artist is proud of, the buyer is proud of, and the manufacturer is proud of.” After all, vinyl records are for fans, and a good record – unlike disposable plastic products such as packaging or drinks bottles – will be cherished for decades. Roorda laughs. “I haven’t seen one LP thrown in the bushes in my life.”

This article was first published in German by Der Spiegel on 2 January 2024. The reporting was supported by the International Journalists’ Programmes’ Weidenfeld Fellowship.

[See also: Thom Yorke’s late style]

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