How Vinyl Got Its Groove Back

How Pressing Plants Are Tackling Vinyl's Pollution Problem

Deepgrooves Pheenix Alpha pressing machine
A Deepgrooves staff member with the Pheenix Alpha pressing machine, which processes around 100 records per hour. Courtesy of Deepgrooves

In 2018, Chicago got its first vinyl pressing plant in nearly three decades: Smashed Plastic. Even more exciting? Instead of purchasing vintage presses -- the kind heated by huge, energy-hungry steam boilers -- the plant opted for newer, fully automatic units. As a result, Smashed Plastic became the first steamless plant in the United States. 

Fans snapping up bespoke 180-gram virgin-vinyl pressings may be unaware of the environmental impact of their latest audiophile acquisitions. Steam-powered presses rely on inefficient and outdated heating technology, and the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pellets used in those presses contain lead, leading to the release of carcinogenic chemicals. (PVC is a problem two times over: first when the material itself is produced, most often overseas in Thailand, and then when it's pressed into a record.) Shrink-wrap -- the plastic that seals new vinyl and is discarded upon opening — is pure packaging waste. Distribution is less visible waste, as albums shipped out of state (or imported to meet escalating demand) burn fuel. 

While vinyl sales have grown steadily since the 2008 launch of Record Store Day to boom proportions, the production of vinyl itself hasn’t changed much for the last 40 years, meaning an environmentally unfriendly business is overdue for a face-lift. Though pressing plants in the European Union have been held to higher standards for over a decade -- and a 2017 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified vinyl chloride as a Group A human carcinogen -- in the United States there isn’t any national oversight of the industry, resulting in patchwork state-by-state regulations. 

Most U.S. vinyl manufacturers agree sustainability has never been a priority. Plus, as Smashed Plastic founder/co-owner Andy Weber puts it, “Up until about five or six years ago, this industry had literally no technological advancements of any sort.” 

Fortunately for Smashed Plastic, just as the Chicago plant was gearing up, so too was Viryl Technologies, a Toronto company with a stated mission to “modernize the vinyl pressing industry.” Launched in 2015 and led by Chad Brown, a friend and industry peer of Weber’s, Viryl manufactures the WarmTone press, which runs on a steamless system that uses an energy-saving electric heater. Brown knew the new tech would solve Weber’s permit problems, while also helping him launch a more sustainable pressing plant -- one that wouldn’t need a gas line or additional space for a boiler room. “Once we heard the whole pitch,” says Weber, “it was a no-brainer.” (Smashed Plastic just ordered its second WarmTone press and is eyeing a third.) 

Weber admits that going green was less a choice and more a necessity due to Chicago’s heavy regulations on steam boilers. “Looking back, we barely had a clue of anything we were doing,” he says. Smashed Plastic considered installing the full boiler room required for vintage presses “because that’s what we felt we had to do. We were hitting our heads against the wall dealing with the city of Chicago [trying] to bring a new machine into the market that had not been here for years, so of course we didn’t get greenlit.” 

As dozens of new pressing plants around the world have come online to meet growing demand, a handful of them, such as Smashed Plastic, have used the opportunity to construct greener, more efficient plants from the ground up. It's environmentally sound, and potentially better business, too. Viryl’s presses -- two of which are in operation at the Third Man plant in Detroit, as well as manufacturers’ in over 14 other countries -- cost $195,000, comparable to the cost of vintage presses. But there are savings to be had in upkeep, since older machines often require obsolete replacement parts, which sell at a premium. Plus, Weber says, the WarmTone “required a lot less build-out and was able to just use electricity to heat water. Our electric cost is actually a little bit less than we had originally thought, and the footprint of the plant as far as square footage was way less.” 

But in Virginia, Tennessee and elsewhere, other plants both new and old continue to operate on outdated patterns, largely because they can. That is in sharp contrast to Europe, where PVC is no longer an option, thanks to the European Union’s 2006 passage of REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals). The Netherlands-based Deepgrooves is billed as the “greenest vinyl pressing plant on the planet” and launched in 2017. Because of REACH, Deepgrooves presses albums from a safer calcium zinc pellet blend rather than PVC. But founder Chris Roorda was eager to take sustainability further. 

“You can do everything as green as possible, but when the energy is still a gray source, then it’s not workable,” he says. "You can drive a car with vegan leather, but when the outside of the car is dripping oil, then the whole car is not sustainable." The presses at Deepgrooves rely on solar power and natural gas. 

Roorda and his team have tackled packaging waste as well. Shrink-wrap is a primary concern for any green-minded pressing plant. Deepgrooves makes its own 50% sugar cane-based sealing and has been exploring a simple paper sticker to seal record sleeves, while Smashed Plastic is looking into biodegradable vegetable-based shrink-wrap. 

As for distribution, green solutions emphasize locality -- a concept that the Vinyl Record Manufacturers Association of North America has rallied behind since its formation in March 2020 by Addison, Texas-based manufacturer Hand Drawn Pressing. “If you choose a pressing plant that is geographically close to you, then your carbon footprint is smaller -- and you’re going to save money on shipping,” says Chris Mara, a VRMA member and owner of Nashville’s Welcome to 1979 Studios and the Mara Machines plating and stamper facility. 

But Mara says that for many recording artists, knowing where their vinyl is manufactured is “not a conscious or informed decision.” He compares it with his experience engineering and producing: “That process is so in front of the artists -- who’s going to play guitar, what amp, what studio, what brand of cymbals, and who is going to master it,” he says. “And then after that they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah. And we’re getting vinyl made.’ And it’s like, ‘Cool, who’s doing the mastering?’ No clue. ‘Who’s doing the lacquer plates?’ No clue. If a guitar cable matters and then you suddenly don’t care who’s pressing your mixes onto vinyl -- I’m not asking you to change how you act, I’m just asking you to continue acting how you act.”

For Smashed Plastic, “Locality was 100% the impetus of starting this,” says Weber. The plant is adjacent to Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood -- home to many of the independent artists with whom Smashed Plastic works. “People can come in and talk to us about their orders and can come watch their records being made,” says Weber. “It’s the biggest thing we have going for us.” 

The pandemic has placed an even greater emphasis on locality. Artists and consumers have faced lengthy delays on overseas shipments -- which have been arriving by boat rather than plane -- as well as rising prices. Weber says Smashed Plastic has seen a spike in business because of such delays, which might also be giving clients pause to consider the bigger picture. “Some clients have come to us based on the fact that they don’t feel good about the idea of having 3,000 records shipped from overseas because of the carbon footprint,” he says. 

Yet while Smashed Plastic does get its lacquers cut locally, either by Chicago Mastering or Saff Mastering, the plant still must go outside city limits for PVC (imported from overseas) and plating (done at Nashville’s Welcome to 1979 and New Jersey’s Mastercraft). “We try to keep [the process] in Chicago,” says Weber. “But it’s not easy because of the way things have been set up in the industry for such a long time.”

Which raises the question, if you’re not a new plant starting from scratch, is it even possible to pivot to green? Roorda isn't so sure. “Most plants were built up in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and they are still running with the same infrastructure, equipment and inefficiency,” he says. Weber agrees: “It would be a major overhaul. If we [already] had a boiler room, I’m not sure why we would ever switch over.” 

He says that since places like Viryl started to enter the scene -- and especially following the 2020 fire at Apollo Masters, which eliminated the only U.S. lacquer manufacturing plant -- the industry is finally starting to think differently. "There has just been no product development in this business for such a long time,” he says. “The good news is you have a lot of green-conscious people getting into the business.” 

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 5, 2021, issue of Billboard.

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