Environmental Pros & Cons Of Digital Music

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of the proliferation of iPods specifically and digital music in general?

—Mike Riley, San Francisco, CA

The advent of digital music and other forms of entertainment downloaded over the Internet has staggering repercussions for not only the music industry and the consumer experience, but also for the environment.

Analysts estimate that American consumers buy about a billion compact discs (CDs) every year, most of which eventually end up in landfills or incinerators. Since CDs are a mix of polycarbonate, plastic and aluminum, they don’t easily break down and are not easily recycled. They are also not biodegradable, so they won’t break down in landfills. And when incinerated they release toxic fumes into the air.

In contrast, songs downloaded from the Internet consume only hard drive space, and don’t contribute directly to the waste stream. To get rid of downloaded music, one need only drag it to the trash symbol on the desktop. As of January 2006, consumers have downloaded more than 850 million songs via Apple’s iTunes service alone. If all this music had been copied to CDs it would have filled up 85 million disks.

That’s not the whole story, of course. Downloaded music has to be played, and a large amount of “e-waste” (electronic waste) is already clogging landfills in every community. Consumer electronics contain large amounts of nasty toxins such as lead, mercury and cadmium, so when computers, monitors and MP3 players end up in landfills, they can contaminate the surroundings and become a serious health issue.

iPod-maker Apple has come under fire from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group advocating for clean computer production and disposal. The group charges that Apple’s hardware recycling program, which accepted 1,500 tons of old equipment last year from consumers, is woefully inadequate, and that Apple has been lobbying against legislation that sets up such “takeback” programs. They also claim that iPod batteries wear out too soon, prompting consumers to junk the gadgets prematurely. Apple disputes the charges, claiming it is one of the most environmentally responsible businesses in the industry.

But music aficionados need to hear the sounds they love, so digitally downloaded music seems to be the more environmentally friendly choice, especially if consumers make efforts to recycle as much of their e-waste as possible. Apple, Dell, HP and IBM all offer low-cost ways to recycle hardware directly.

Meanwhile, some groundbreaking new CDs, one made from corn and another partly from paper, are on the horizon. Sanyo has teamed up with NatureWorks (formerly Cargill Dow) in the production of “MildDiscs” made from corn (one ear of corn can make 10 CDs). And Sony has developed the “Blue-Ray” disc that is 51 percent paper. It can be cut with scissors and can hold about half the data of a computer hard drive.

But until such innovations become de rigueur, environmentally conscious CD buyers will have to be content passing on their old CDs to friends, selling them to used record stores, or sending them out to recycling centers set up specifically for e-waste, such as the Washington-based GreenDisk.

CONTACTS: Apple Product Take-Back; www.apple.com/environment/recycling/Computer; Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, www.svtc.org; GreenDisk, www.greendisk.com.