Every year, the world throws out 20 to 50 million tons of electronics, including music players, speakers, and other audio equipment, recycling only 18% at the most. Digital downloads and streaming audio may be pushing physical CDs out of the marketplace, but is streaming digital truly “no footprint” if music players and computers are, on average, replaced every two years, the discarded components exported to environmentally hazardous “e-waste” dump sites in Ghana, Nigeria, India, and China?
There are eco-friendly ways to build music products, including CD packaging, music player speakers, and even area-ready electric guitar cabinets. Companies both big and small are acknowledging what Chris Campbell, operations manager for Innova Recordings, describes as a “sea change” among consumers who love music and are concerned about a product’s environmental footprint. Here are just a few eco-friendly companies and products creatively addressing this concern.
The audio company Vers builds sound systems and headphones especially designed for the ubiquitous iPod, using various types of wood from plantations and sustainably managed family-owned mills. No threatened, endangered, or tropical woods are used in Vers products. And for every tree used in a product, Vers plants 100 more through a partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation. Wood, an easily renewable material, also has acoustic properties that Vers takes advantage of in the design and construction of their audio products. Their combination radio and alarm clock with iPod dock ($220), available in either walnut or bamboo, has a surprisingly warm and full sound once you make a few treble and bass adjustments. Vers packages their products with 100% post-consumer paper instead of plastic with no twist ties.
Balance Wu Design has a similarly eco-friendly if quirkier approach when it comes to designing its products. The company’s new Pulpop speaker ($56, mollaspace.com) is a hollow loop constructed out of recycled pulp and a speaker, amplifier, and rechargeable battery contained in its small base. Sound from an iPod, iPhone, or computer connected to the Pulpop is diffused 360 degrees and reverberates within the hollow pulp loop. By default, the Pulpop sounds like an AM radio playing inside a shoebox, with an audible amount of reverb. This isn’t a speaker designed to pump up your favorite hip-hop club banger. But it’s perfect for a desk in a small office, and ideal for playing music as a “background” for whatever task you’re engaged in.
CDs are made of plastic; it’s impossible to make them out of anything other than optical grade polycarbonate. With that in mind, more and more manufacturers are offering the option of CD packaging made from recycled and biodegradable materials.
The CD tray of Bonnie Raitt’s new album Slipstream boasts, “This tray is made from 100% recycled plastic with at least 35% post-consumer materials.” Slipstream, like most albums these days, is packaged as a “digipak,” and eco-friendly form of packaging that has overtaken the once ubiquitous polystyrene jewel cases. Raitt has a long history of environmental and anti-nuclear activism, so it’s not surprising to she’s concerned about the environmental footprint of a CD.
Artists outside of the mainstream are also taking care to package their music in a similarly green way. “So many of our artists are mindful about things like being “eco-friendly” because it’s just part of who they are,” says Campbell. “It’s not a calculated PR move.” Such eco-friendly CD packaging can be expensive and labor intensive, such as the thin, 7″ x 7″ cardboard, ornately designed, letter pressed sleeve that houses string quartet Ethel’s newest CD Heavy. But Innova, being a non-profit, artist-friendly label, don’t factor in such costs when it comes to realizing an artist’s vision. “We’re lucky to have a really good vendor who’s aware of our needs and is very accommodating,” says Campbell. “It comes down to case by case basis for packaging costs.”
Hemp speakers and cabinet
Hard Truckers, founded by two of the original soundmen for the Grateful Dead, built and sell an eco-friendly speaker cabinet made of pressed hemp and covered in renewable bamboo. The cabinet, called the Hemp Fatty, features two 12” Tone Tubby hemp cone speakers, invented and built by John Harrison, who estimates he’s made at least 10,000 such speakers. Hemp is durable, renewable, and, according to musicians, including Billy Gibbons, Trey Anastasio, and Keith Richards, sounds amazing. Unlike the Vers radio alarm clock or the Pulpop speaker, Hard Trucker’s hemp guitar cabinet and Harrison’s Tone Tubby hemp speakers are built for professional musicians. With sustainability in mind, the Tone Tubby website describes their built to last speaker cones as “an investment for the future of your sound,” that sound being directly dependent upon the future of our environment.
Photo: Pulpop speaker by Dan Saelinger.