There has been a change in the way people listen to music and watch movies. One of the consequences of that change has been that we are less concerned with owning something than we used to be and more focused on deriving value from it. Rather than build a collection of music in physical form, we download or stream it. Consequently, the record collections of a generation ago, painstakingly acquired and frequently arranged alphabetically, have become something of a rarity, despite the reemergence of vinyl.

Image: Statista

It’s a similar story where movies are concerned. The once common practice of buying movies – on VHS tape and then on DVD and Blu-ray – is now a niche pastime. From subscription services like Netflix, Amazon or Hulu to payment-free options like YouTube, there are plenty of ways to watch TV shows and movies without having to physically own a copy. And thanks to the plethora of streaming services on offer, you can watch your favourite movie, catch up with a must-see TV show, or listen to the songs that “saved your life” wherever and whenever you want on your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

One commonly held misconception about our changing media consumption habits is that streaming is an inherently greener way to listen to music. The plastics and packaging materials used in the production and distribution of something like a vinyl record were always easy to see. You didn’t need to visualize them, you could hold them in your hands. From the black PVC disc to the card and paper sleeve, to the shrinkwrap surrounding it.

That simply doesn’t apply where streaming services are concerned. Click, tap or swipe, then settle in and listen – or watch – on-demand. It’s so simple and easy that it has the appearance of being completely frictionless all the way along the chain of delivery.

A cloudy outlook

If you listen via one of the many streaming services available, the music you choose isn’t stored on your computer or phone etc. Instead, it resides on a server in a data centre somewhere.

Spotify is the largest music streaming service with a reported 207 million monthly active users and in the last quarter of 2018 those users listened to 15 billions hours of material. It recently took the decision to stop using its own servers and to migrate its operation to the Google Cloud in a move reported to cost around $450 million. That’s a lot of digital content living on a lot of servers.

The cloud that we hear so much about, which sounds so intangible and nebulous is, in fact, enormous buildings stuffed full of servers, switches, data storage devices, cabling, cooling, CCTV, and so on. Every cloud-based service you use calls upon a data centre to meet your needs. That includes everything from online shopping to running a high-end software-as-a-service enterprise computing application. You can add virtually all the apps you use on your phone to that list, too.

Google reckons one web search uses the same amount of energy as a 60-watt light bulb would over 17 seconds and will produce something like 0.2 grams of CO2. That might not sound like very much. But there are 3.8 million Google searches every minute. That’s a lot of lightbulbs. In total, the world’s data centres are thought to be responsible for around 2% of global electricity consumption and produce as much CO2 as the airline industry.

Even your emails have a carbon footprint. A regular email produces 4g of CO2 while for one with a large attachment that could rise to 50g of CO2 – and with something in the region of 290 billion emails sent each day, once again we see a very large footprint.

Play it again

When it comes to the question of whether owning or streaming is better for the environment, there are many factors to consider. It’s clear that simply opting out of owning a physical item is not enough on its own for streaming to win out. You have to consider the total consumption of energy and resources relating to the music you’re listening to. That includes questions about the energy efficiency of the device you’re listening on. If you’re using a hi-fi system with a separate turntable and amplifier, your electricity consumption will not be the same as someone using a wi-fi speaker, for example. Similarly, some broadly equivalent devices will be more energy efficient than others.

But the considerations go one step further than that.

Setting aside how much energy might be used by your hi-fi, the carbon footprint of your favourite vinyl LP remains the same no matter whether you play it 10 times or 1,000 times. You could even argue that the more you play it the more you are diluting that carbon footprint as a factor of the enjoyment you gain. The same cannot be said for streaming – stream something 1,000 times and you are creating considerably more energy demand and consequent emissions than if you streamed it 10 times.

There comes a point when, if you are prepared to dig into the minutiae of energy consumption and cost, owning and playing a record or CD is better for the environment than streaming. But all that paper and plastic tips the scales in the other direction if you only listen to something a few times.

Another option to consider, especially if digital consumption is your preferred way of listening, is to avoid streaming by opting for downloads. If your music is stored on your phone, tablet, laptop and so on, you effectively bypass those downsides of repeated listening.