Week of 7/27/2008

Dear EarthTalk: What's going on in the music industry with all the CDs and plastic CD holders undoubtedly generating a lot of plastic waste?

—John S., via email

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), CDs and DVDs are typically manufactured by combining various mined metals (aluminum, gold, silver and nickel) with petroleum-derived plastics, lacquers and dyes. Given what complicated beasts CDs and DVDs are—products with thin layers of different materials mixed together are nearly impossible to recycle—most municipal recycling program won't accept them, leaving consumers to fend for themselves in figuring out how to dispose of them. As a result, most discarded discs end up in the trash.

These difficult-to-recycle materials can pollute groundwater and, in turn, contribute to a whole host of human health problems. But the low cost of producing such top-selling consumer items means that replacing them with something greener is not likely anytime soon.

Research has shown that polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable plastic-substitute derived from corn and other agricultural wastes, could replace plastic polycarbonate as a disc's main substrate, but the present high cost of using such a material makes it unlikely to catch on any time soon with those paying to produce mass volumes of CDs and DVDs.

CDs and DVDs are made with a combination of various metals, petroleum-derived plastics, lacquers and dyes and as a result are almost impossible to recycle. When discarded, they can pollute groundwater and contribute to a whole host of human health problems.
© Getty Images

As for jewel cases, most are made out of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), an inexpensive petrochemical-based plastic that is notoriously difficult to recycle and has been linked to elevated cancer rates among workers and neighbors where it's manufactured. Furthermore, when PVC is thrown in with regular recyclables it can contaminate entire batches, ruin equipment and cause human health problems. While cardboard and paper jewel cases may be all the rage among a few record labels—Warner Music Group's U.S. division, for example, has been using 30 percent post-recycled paper for the packaging in all of its CDs and DVDs since 2005—the high cost and low durability of such alternatives have kept them largely out of the mainstream.

So what's a conscientious consumer to do? Those willing to pay a small processing fee can send old CDs and DVDs to one of a handful of private companies (such as Washington-based GreenDisk) set up to recycle them into high-quality plastics used in auto parts, office equipment, alarm panels, street lights, electrical cable insulation, jewel cases and other specialized items.

A shift in consumer preferences already underway may be just the thing that will make everyone's personal collections of music and movies greener. Consumers are already able to download some six million individual digital songs via the 500 or so legal online music services now up and running on the Internet. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, digital sales now account for some 30 percent of all U.S. music sales and 15 percent globally. And most consumer analysts expect these percentages to grow steadily in the coming years, which is good news for the environment.

CONTACTS: EPA's "Lifecycle of a CD or DVD"; GreenDisk; International Federation of the Phonographic Industry


Dear EarthTalk: What are the major environmental issues that our next president, be it Obama or McCain, will have to confront?

—Melinda Barnes, via e-mail

Global warming is the biggest issue facing our next president. Both Barack Obama and John McCain are committed to tackling climate change, although their proposed approaches differ in significant ways.
© Getty Images

Global warming is unquestionably the most pressing environmental issue facing whoever ends up in the White House in January 2009. Not only does climate change impact—and in most cases exacerbate—other environmental problems, it has even wider implications for the economy and society at large. Luckily for all of us, both Barack Obama and John McCain are committed to tackling climate change, although their proposed approaches differ in significant ways.

The non-profit League of Conservation Voters (LCV), America's leading voice for environmental advocacy within electoral politics, would prefer to see Obama elected president given his environmental track record and plans for the future. While both candidates favor instituting a mandatory "cap-and-trade" program (whereby the federal government allows polluters to trade for the right to emit a reduced overall amount of greenhouse gases), Obama is for more strident cuts. He would like to see the U.S. reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by some 80 percent by 2050, while McCain supports only cutting back by 65 percent. Both candidates have authored legislation in the Senate designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, although no such bills have come close to passing.

Even though McCain is by far the most forward-thinking of the original Republican presidential contenders on global warming and the need to take action, LCV still gives him poor marks, only a 24 rating (out of 100) lifetime and zero for 2007. LCV says that McCain missed all 15 critical environmental votes last year and that he "repeatedly clings to outdated policies and flip-flops on core environmental issues." By comparison, Obama earned a score of 67 in 2007, because he missed four votes due to campaigning (his 2006 score was 100), and has a lifetime LCV rating of 86.

One area where environmentalists take issue with McCain is his support for expanding the role of nuclear power in cutting fossil fuel use. Obama would rather bolster alternative energy sources like wind and solar power that do not have the nasty side effect of radioactive waste in need of storage and disposal. (McCain also supports the development of new renewables, but not to the extent that Obama is willing to commit).

Some of the other hot button environmental issues sure to occupy the next president's time include: how to best protect the nation's water resources and wetlands; whether to allow more drilling for oil and natural gas both offshore and within Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; whether to reinstate the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, a Clinton-era law (subsequently overturned by the Bush administration) calling for protection of some 58 million acres of public land from logging; how to meet U.S. commitments on existing environmental laws in international trade agreements; and whether to bring back the so-called "polluter pays" part of the government's "Superfund" toxic waste clean-up program.

While Obama is clearly the greener candidate on most of these issues, the fact that McCain even takes them seriously—and is committed to any greenhouse gas reductions whatsoever—is a plus for environmental advocates exasperated by eight years of green naysaying by the Bush administration.

CONTACTS: Obama "08; McCain for President; League of Conservation Voters