The environmental impact of string instruments

A Stradivarius can last hundreds of years. But can string instruments damage the planet?

By Jacob Fitzgerald
Thursday 10 June 2021 at 15:11

Every time I replace a string on my violin, I wonder what the process of making that string was, what its materials are, and whether or not the string I am taking off is recyclable. After a little research into this topic, it became apparent that environmentally speaking the problem lies not in the making of a violin such as mine that I will likely keep for life. The big problem instead lies with the short-term use of beginner instruments, rarely recycled accessories (strings, pegs, tailpieces, chinrests, bridges and so on), and issues of the materials historically used in luthiery.

The problem with student instruments

The main environmental problem with student instruments is very simple: they end up in landfill. This is in fact crucial to the business model of many student instrument manufacturers. Beginner violins, violas, cellos, guitars: you name it, they are not built to last. If they did last and were passed on to the next generation of young string players, then these instrument manufacturers would be out of a job. Not only does the manufacture and subsequent disposal of these instruments cause deforestation: the varnish and accessories attached to these instruments also make recycling impossible, and the likelihood of a student having damaged the instrument so high, that landfill is seemingly the only solution.

So, what can you do to help reduce the environmental impact of your old instruments or those of your students? Firstly, teach them to look after their instruments: this is surely an important lesson in valuing craftmanship that will serve them well when they get their first ‘proper violin’ anyway. It might also mean that, when they progress to a new instrument, the old one can be passed on to a younger sibling or someone else from their school. This of course fits in with tackling consumerist, throwaway culture more generally too.

Secondly, if an instrument cannot be repaired, there are ways to dispose of it responsibly. You can, for instance, remove all accessories and attachments and scrape or sand off the varnish, recycling all parts separately.

Recycling string instruments’ accessories

Whether your string instrument is a Stradavari cello, a Fender Stratocaster guitar or a Stentor violin (the most popular beginner violin worldwide), the same principles apply when disposing of all the accessories that come hand in hand with string playing. You could for example consider donating old strings to It’s a String Thing, an Etsy store business based in Wales founded in 2014 selling jewellery and other trinkets made from old instrument strings and other recycled materials.

Issues surrounding historic materials

Luthiery (the craft of making stringed instruments) is a process which has changed little in hundreds of years, and the materials used are no small part of this: ebony for the fingerboard, spruce for the soundboard, maple for the bridge, rosewood for many of the fittings, snakewood or pernambuco for most bows, and often gold, silver and even ivory for more decorative features and fittings. For workshops making instruments of any quality in 2021, responsibly sourcing these materials is one of the main ways in which we can secure a positive relationship between making string instruments and the environment. One of the best ways to do this is to try and use local woods and self-source your materials. Not to mention of course that ivory is now illegal in the UK and many rare woods are also protected by environmental law.

Can’t we just blame the brass?

I believe strongly that we string players must do what we can to protect the planet. However, truth be told, we are by no means entirely to blame for musical instruments’ negative impact on the natural world. Brass and woodwind instruments, both beginner and professional, on the whole don’t last as long, and their metallic components are not biodegradable. A tin can will rust and flake into the atmosphere in about 100 years, but imagine how long a tuba might take. Maybe one day brass instruments will be as frowned-upon as coal-fired power plants?

Joking aside, any object which has a useful life of more than a hundred years is going to have an exceptionally small environmental footprint, and this is surely one important way forward for a sustainable future. As string players we can definitely do our bit.