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Digital Music And The Environment: Is It Really Easy Being Green?

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Research teams from Carnegie Mellon University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University released a study for Microsoft and Intel about energy consumption and CO2 emissions in downloading music versus buying the physical CD product. The study researched 6 scenarios ranging from buying a CD delivered via traditional retail methods and e-tail providers (such as Amazon) to downloading music and using it digitally and/or burning to a CD-R with and without packaging.

The group concluded that “online delivery is clearly superior from an energy and CO2 perspective”. This seems like a given; digital downloads don’t need manufacturing, packaging or transport so of course it would be more eco-friendly. The study concluded that even in a situation in which the music is downloaded, burned onto a CD and put in a jewel case the carbon difference is 40% in favor of the download. If the music is not burned to a CD, it’s 80% better than purchasing a CD. However, there is much more to look into.

Larry West from About.com surmised that, “American consumers buy about a billion compact discs every year, most of which eventually end up in landfills or incinerators. They are also not biodegradable, so they won’t break down in landfills. And when incinerated they release toxic fumes into the air.” However, “a large amount of “e-waste” (electronic waste) is already clogging up landfills in every community. Consumer electronics contain large amounts of nasty toxins such as lead, mercury and cadmium, so when computers, monitors and MP3 players end up in landfills, they can contaminate the surroundings and become a serious health issue”.

Paul Resnikoff from Digital Music News adds to this very important point that “the issue gets far more complicated when hardware enters the picture, an area that largely fell outside the research focus.  What about the iPods that break, the batteries that get drained, the computers that crash into obsolescence, the phones that get replaced?”. With over 200 million iPods sold (with no less than 17 progressing models, not including differing capacity versions, to ensure quick upgrade rates) and the escalating trend of backing up digital purchases on hard-drives, it makes you think just how eco-friendly digital really is.

Another thing to consider from the report is the finding that “if the file transfer size is increased to 260 MB (from 60-100 MB) the download and burn option looks very similar to the e-commerce CD scenario due to increased Internet energy use for downloading”. As broadband penetration continues to dominate and more music lovers are switching to digital, files are unsurprisingly becoming bigger as quality is evolving.

It’s all well and good that over 8 billion songs have been downloaded from iTunes and most were probably just synced to an MP3 player rather than burned to a CD-R …but what of the rapid torrent ‘download and delete after one listen’ culture file-sharers are developing? As more consumers become tech-savvy and go to the internet for music, will the amount of energy spent on downloading vast collections of digital music outweigh its benefit?

Another point Resnikoff makes is what of “other forms of music delivery, including subscription-based and ad-supported models, as well as emerging cloud-based delivery systems”? It would be interesting to see how streaming music or playing music on your mobile contributes because something tells us using a computer as a stereo system (with or without hooking up speakers) and draining your mobile’s battery over and over isn’t favorable to the environment in the least. As far as this study goes it’s a great start, but if anything, it should make us wary of the repercussions of ‘trendy’ and disposable hardware, which urgently needs to be studied further.

Actual report: http://download.intel.com/pressroom/pdf/CDsvsdownloadsrelease.pdf

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