Day 611:11K-Pop’s plastic problem
Inside a Toronto bubble tea café, Ash Ledoux flips through a photo album with a group of friends.
The pictures inside are not of family or happy memories from her native France. Rather, they’re exclusive photocards of her favourite K-pop idols, from groups like Twice, Seventeen, P1Harmony and (G)I-DLE.
Photocards are collectable items, similar to baseball and hockey cards, often included in the CDs and records of K-pop artists. But not every album contains the same photocards, making some rarer than others — and prompting many fans to buy multiple versions of the same album, something Ledoux has done.
Each K-pop release can have about three to five versions, with different conceptual photos and colour schemes.
When she first became a fan of Korean pop music, Ledoux says she felt pressure to purchase each version of her favourite artists’ new releases. But as time went on, she eased up on her consumption.
“It’s OK not to have everything. It doesn’t make you less of a fan,” she said.
As sales of K-pop albums have soared in recent years, photos of boxes of discarded albums have gone viral on social media. Ledoux has started wondering about the impact that the packaging of all this memorabilia might have on the environment. She admits to feeling some “responsibility.”
“We as K-pop fans have an incredible amount of pollution,” she said. “We can buy less, of course, but then we still want to [purchase the paraphernalia] because … it’s still K-pop.”
In 2021, a group of fans launched the platform KPOP 4 PLANET as a way to raise concerns about overconsumption in the South Korean entertainment industry.
K-pop idols part of ‘neoliberal capitalist industry’
One of the campaigns KPOP 4 PLANET organized was called “No K-pop on a Dead Planet,” which directly addressed the issue of bulk buying albums and plastic waste.
As part of the campaign, organizers collected more than 8,000 unwanted K-pop albums from fans and delivered them to South Korean entertainment companies including HYBE, JYP and SM Entertainment as a way to illustrate the amount of waste they create.
According to Areum Jeong, an assistant professor of Korean culture at Arizona State University, bulk buying is a practice Korean music agencies and labels actively encourage. Photocards are just one of the reasons fans buy so many CDs and records. Jeong says sales also determine whether artists get on music charts and increase their chances of winning prizes at awards shows.
Music agencies also tempt consumers with autograph sessions and fan meetings with their idols. These draws are often randomized — although the more albums someone buys, the better their chances of winning this prize.
“[Fans] recognize that their favourite idols are also a product of this neoliberal capitalist industry. These [album] charts become a criteria [for] measuring the idol’s popularity and the fandom’s power,” Jeong said.
“K-pop fans want their idols to do well, so that the company will continue to promote these idols, create new albums, do concerts in Korea and also in other countries, which leads to the idol’s happiness and success.”
A dilemma for diehard fans
Jeong is a K-pop fan herself who has been to 25 autograph sessions, either virtually or in person. She says to prevent her extra albums from going to waste, she gives them away at fan events.
She admits she struggles with the idea of bulk buying.
“When I see photos of bags and bags of albums being thrown in the trash, I get really angry. But I’m also kind of at a loss, because there’s only so much fans can do,” she said.
“I do think there should be a collective way for both the industry and fans to work together to find a more environmentally sustainable way.”
WATCH | JYP Entertainment reveals its sustainability goals:
One of the things Lee thinks could help would be something she describes as “the green album option.” That is, fans could choose how many physical albums they receive when making an online purchase. For instance, fans could pay for 30 albums, but only choose to receive three. That way, they can reduce plastic waste while still helping these artists rank higher on music charts and improving their own chances of winning a video call or in-person meeting with their idols.
“There’s always this never-ending promotion of newly created merchandise, even peer pressure in fandom to buy albums and to stream music constantly,” said Jeong.
“There’s many reasons why this consumerism happens, [including] this idea of parasocial relationships between idols and fans.”
Industry working to improve
In recent years, some major K-pop agencies have promised to make a greater effort to reduce their environmental impact.
JYP Entertainment, the company behind groups like Twice and Stray Kids, vowed in 2021 to reduce waste associated with physical album purchases by digitally distributing some exclusive content instead, like behind-the-scenes images and videos, lyrics and photo books.
HYBE, the company behind BTS, said in a statement to CBC Radio’s Day 6 that it has started printing photocards and albums using more sustainable materials, like biodegradable plastic and soy-based ink.
BTS rapper j-hope released his 2022 album Jack in the Box without a physical CD. It still contains photocards, but the album comes with minimal packaging, and fans can scan a QR code inside to download the music separately.
Environmentally conscious fans say these changes don’t go far enough.
“I have seen a lot of efforts, but I have seen some greenwashing,” said Dayeon Lee, a campaigner with KPOP 4 PLANET.
The impact of streaming
Beyond the practice of bulk buying, KPOP 4 PLANET has led campaigns looking at the environmental impact of streaming music.
Like album purchases, streaming helps boost artists’ popularity. The number of digital downloads and streams increase an artist’s chance of appearing on weekly programs in South Korea like Inkigayo and M Countdown to promote their music.
Lee says companies like Spotify, Apple Music and the Korean platform Melon rely on data centres, which require large amounts of energy to operate and distribute content. KPOP 4 PLANET says streaming music for more than five hours can emit more carbon emissions than a physical album.
According to Kyle Devine, author of the book Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music, calculating the toll streaming has on the environment is a challenge because some platforms have outsourced their data centres. Also, it needs to take into account whether the energy is generated using fossil fuels or not.
Devine pushes back on the idea that fans should limit their music consumption overall. He says efforts like KPOP 4 PLANET are a great way to encourage more accountability and sustainable practices in the music industry.
“The most important thing that music fans can do is organize,” he said.