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.