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Is there a green solution to the vinyl record backlog?

The backlog in the vinyl industry since the pandemic began means that artists and some music fans are having to wait around a year to receive their records.

Global demand for albums is at its highest in 30 years, while most factories are still using the same pressing methods deployed in the 1980s.

But a Dutch firm is offering, what it says is, a more sustainable – but more expensive – solution to the backlog.

And it is doing so without the material that gave vinyl its name.

Harm Theunisse, owner of Green Vinyl Records, in Eindhoven, believes it is the “new standard” for the industry.

His team has spent the past seven years developing a new large-scale pressing machine that uses up to 90% less energy than typical vinyl production, and which can be monitored in real time rather than retrospectively.

“This machine can do almost 40% more capacity than the traditional plants, too,” said Theunisse.

“The pressing here is both faster and better for our planet.”

The machine in Eindhoven avoids using PVC (polyvinyl chloride – which gave vinyl its name) – the most environmentally damaging of plastics, according to Greenpeace.

Instead, it uses polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) – a more durable plastic which is easier to recycle.

Theunisse said he wanted to do something to enable future generations to listen to music on vinyl without worrying about the environmental impact.

“It’s for the kids,” he said. “Our world is heating up.”

The barrier to finding eco-friendly alternatives to PVC has always been the desire to match the same rich sound quality while maintaining the hardness and durability of plastic, says Sharon George, senior lecturer in sustainability at Keele University.

Green Vinyl Records’ method is “a real step in the right direction”, she says.

“We need to stop thinking about the cost at the till and think about that cost to the planet and to our health,” she adds.

vinyl

Worldwide demand for vinyl is currently estimated at around 700 million records a year, as a result of a resurgence in popularity coinciding with supply chain problems during the Covid pandemic.

The big factories are having to turn away business.

“It’s nice to have such a full order book,” said Ton Vermeulen, chief executive of vinyl manufacturing company Record Industry, in Haarlem, near Amsterdam.

But there are issues, he says, with people “always over- or under-ordering”.

“When they have a new album out, they order 1,000 [copies] and, by the time they’re getting it, they already need 1,500.”

Mr Vermeulen says his company is dealing with frustrated customers who have album plans and gigs booked around release dates. He is having to tell record labels and artists to wait.

“They’re willing to pay more. They say ‘whatever it costs, it doesn’t matter’ – but unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. It’s the whole chain we need to go through,” he told BBC News.

Painstaking

Vinyl has been manufactured at Vermeulen’s factory since 1957 and the company prides itself on its heritage methods, using the same 33 presses, which are painstakingly maintained.

First a master disc is made of metal and converted into a stamper. Then PVC pellets are loaded into the machine, melted and pressed into the mould.

The machines stay on for 17 hours and churn out 50,000 PVC records per day.

The audio here is made and packed for the three major labels: Sony, Universal and Warner Music; deals that have been in existence for decades.

Vinyl manufacturer Record Industry is trying to be conscious of the planet, too – from recycling waste to investing in solar power.

boss

So what does its boss think of a more environmentally-friendly future for pressing records?

“I’ve had calls saying, ‘Hey, can you press records from the plastic from the ocean?’,” said Mr Vermeulen. “We could give it a try and it might look like a record – but if it needs to sound like a normal record, there’s where we have a problem.”

“When you want to keep the quality of the product as it is now, then that’s impossible,” he says.

The molecular attributes of the plastic are thought to have a significant impact on the quality of how the music sounds – so pressing plants want to avoid using impure materials.

High cost

Mr Vermeulen was involved with the Green Vinyl project when it began, but he raises concerns about the costs.

“I think it’s the unknown aspects, and the costs involved to put high investment in – because these machines are massively more expensive than the presses we use over here,” he said.

“I’m not saying there is no space for such a new technique, but I have doubts if companies are going [to go] for it.”

But it seems some are willing to take the risk. Tom Odell’s new album is being pressed at Green Vinyl Records.

And Harm Theunisse has just signed his first order from Warner, too.

The entrepreneur acknowledges the initial costs, but estimates a return on investment in around 18 months.

“You’ve got to buy one and then listen to it yourself,” he says.

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