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Thanks to the power of MP3, sales of music CDs in Canada and around the world have declined. (Iain McGillivray/Getty)
Thanks to the power of MP3, sales of music CDs in Canada and around the world have declined. (Iain McGillivray/Getty)

GREEN LIVING

Downloading isn't as green as you think Add to ...

Isolde Spies lives and works to the sound of music. When she’s not listening to tunes at home or in her car, she has upbeat songs blasting from her speakers at work as she puts her clients through their paces in aqua cardio or spinning classes.

She used to have to rifle through stacks of CDs to find the music she loves, but today Ms. Spies simply taps on her iPod to pick from about 11,500 songs stored in her digital music library.

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“I stopped buying CDs some time around 2002,” says Ms. Spies, an exercise physiologist in Mississauga, Ont. “Today, every time I want to buy a song or an album, I just go online and download.”

Ms. Spies is among the growing number of Canadians who are turning away from music CDs in favour of digital music. A 2009 survey by Statistics Canada found 47 per cent of people who use the Internet at home download and save music from the Web – a 10 per cent increase from 2005.

Meanwhile, sales of music CDs in Canada and around the world have declined.

Ms. Spies cites convenience as her main reason for choosing digitized music over the hard-copy version. But there’s another benefit that she considers a nice bonus: by choosing digital music over CDs, she’s being kinder to the environment.

“Having lived in the U.K., where they're leaps and bounds ahead when it comes to looking after the environment, I’ve become very conscientious about my own carbon footprint,” she says. “So yes, it’s nice to know that downloading music provides yet another way of being helpful to the environment.”

Or does it?

While digital music may be the more environmentally benign choice over CDs – which are made primarily with aluminum and petroleum-based plastics – it is not quite as green as many people think, says Casey Harrell, a San Francisco-based IT analyst at Greenpeace International. The same goes for that other popular download: movies, which are increasingly becoming available in digital format through video streaming services such as Netflix.

“Yes, it is more environmentally damaging to move atoms rather than bits, so from that perspective you could easily say it’s more environmentally friendly to download music and save it onto an MP3 than it is to buy CDs,” says Mr. Harrell. “But at the same time, digital entertainment is not without impact on the environment, and I think most people don’t really think about that.”

Mr. Harrell points to the heavy metals and toxic chemicals – such as lead, mercury and brominated fire retardants – that go into many MP3 and DVD players. Each year, thousands of these electronic devices end up in landfills, and over time the chemicals inside leach into the soil and groundwater. It doesn’t help that consumers today tend to replace their MP3 players frequently, increasing the amount of electronic waste that goes to landfills.

Many people also don’t give any thought to the environmental impact of the giant servers that store downloadable music, says Mr. Harrell.

“These server farms are huge – the size of several soccer stadiums,” he says. “People don’t realize that every time they stream or download music or movies, that song or movie is stored somewhere, in very large data centres that use up a lot of power and produce a great deal of carbon emissions.”

In a 2006 study out of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, researchers looked at the environmental impact of downloading songs from the Internet compared with buying music CDs from a bricks-and-mortar store or an e-commerce site. They found that music downloads did lead to higher energy use and carbon dioxide emissions from Internet data flows and data centre usage.

However, these increases were more than offset by the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production, packaging and delivery of music CDs ordered in-store or online. The study’s conclusion? Digitally delivered music has 40 per cent to 80 per cent less impact on the environment than music CDs.

“The big takeaway from our study is that buying music digitally will reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions compared to buying music on a CD,” says Jonathan Koomey, one of the study’s researchers.

Mr. Koomey notes that the study did not look at the environmental impact of using and disposing of MP3 players. “The question of whether someone changes their MP3 player every year is a separate one from how they get their music,” he says.

There are some improvements on the MP3 player front, as device manufacturers have either reduced or eliminated toxic materials from their products. Sony, for one, has removed lead, cadmium stabilizers and brominated fire retardants from all its MP3 players.

“These are all gone,” says Nick Aubry, director of environment, repair parts and vendor management at Sony of Canada Ltd. “As well, our MP3 lineup from April 2011 and onwards are PVC-free in product and packaging.”

Similarly, Apple says on its website that it has removed brominated fire retardants, mercury, arsenic and PVC from its iPod media players. The batteries that power these devices are also free of lead, cadmium and mercury.

Industry-led recycling programs are also lessening the environmental impact of digital music and movies, says Shelagh Kerr, president and CEO of Electronics Product Stewardship Canada, a not-for-profit organization representing more than 20 electronics manufacturers, whose mandate is to promote responsible recycling of electronic products.

These programs, which are funded by manufacturers – who in turn pass on the cost to consumers – designate collection sites where consumers can drop off their electronics. The programs work only with recycling companies that follow strict rules for handling toxic and reusable material, says Ms. Kerr.

Some consumers are finding other ways to make their music more environmentally friendly. Tobin Lambie, for instance, buys secondhand CDs and trades in his old ones in exchange for a store credit toward other previously enjoyed albums.

In addition to wanting to help the environment, Mr. Lambie, a resident of Oakville, Ont., just west of Toronto, says going the secondhand route allows him to continue enjoying the things he has always appreciated about buying music CDs from a store: looking at creative jacket designs and talking to other people about music.

“Downloading music is cold – there's no packaging and you're not interacting with somebody in the store discussing the music,” he says. “By buying secondhand CDs, I get to enjoy the music I love and the CDs aren't going to landfills.”

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