Plastic Waste From CDs & Their Cases?

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.