Week of 9/19/2004

Dear EarthTalk: How can I recycle my unwanted CDs and DVDs?

— Mike Wells, Oswego, IL

Compact discs (CDs) and digital videodiscs (DVDs) have become the de facto standards for media storage and playback for millions of consumers and businesses around the world. But the very popularity of these inexpensive 5" diameter discs made of metal, plastic and dye is taking a serious toll on the waste stream.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, more than 45 tons of used CDs are discarded globally every month. Ironically, CDs and DVDs are made from recyclable materials, yet the vast majority ends up in landfills or incinerators anyway. As with minimizing any waste, the three R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle) apply:

For starters, consumers can reduce the number of disks that they purchase. Worldwatch suggests that consumers search online for information and media so as to avoid purchasing CDs and DVDs in the first place. For those situations where virtual media is not available or practical, Worldwatch recommends looking for used CDs and DVDs to save both materials and money. Amazon.com makes finding and buying used discs directly from individual sellers as easy as searching its site for the titles you want. Also, many libraries now lend out CDs and DVDs as readily as they do books.

For the discerning craftsperson or fun-loving kid, reuse means turning old discs into key components in any number of toys and decorations. Crafty end uses include turning them into disco balls by gluing them to a hanging ball, making drink coasters by attaching cork to one side, or attaching them to roadside fences or bicycle seat-posts to serve as safety reflectors. The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) offers tips on how to turn an old CD or DVD into a model of the planet Saturn. Indeed, the sky’s the limit with what can be done with old discs.

Those looking to recycle CDs and DVDs have several options. The best deal financially is to sell your unwanted discs to retail stores that sell used titles. Trading with friends or co-workers is another waste-free option. Beyond selling or trading, NESAR Systems of Darlington, PA and MRC Polymers of Chicago, IL will take and recycle old disks at no charge (you pay postage) and use the raw materials to make new discs. Likewise, GreenDisk of Redmond, WA will recycle CDs and DVDs, as well as a wide range of other technology-related refuse, for a fee of 10 cents per pound to cover labor costs (again, you pay postage).

All these options aside, the best scenario is to not have to get rid of old CDs and DVDs in the first place. Consumers should only buy CDs and DVDs which they intend to keep, and should ask to be taken off mailing lists that generate junk mail with enclosed CDs. With so many eco-responsible options available these days, sending old discs to the "circular file" surely makes no sense.

CONTACTS: Worldwatch Institute, (202) 452-1999; http://www.worldwatch.org; NASA Space Place: Saturn Model, http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/cassini_make1.shtm; NESAR Systems, 420 Ashwood Road, Darlington, PA 16115, (724) 827-8172; MRC Polymers, 3307 South Londale Ave., Chicago, IL 60623, (773) 890-9000; Greendisk, 16398 NE 85th St., Redmond, WA 98052, (425) 883-9165, www.greendisk.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the prairie grasslands of the Midwest are North America’s most endangered ecosystem?

—Charlie Anderson, Boston, MA

When Lewis and Clark made their epic journey across North America in 1805, they encountered far more prairie grassland (or "tallgrass prairie") than any other type of landscape. Today, just 200 years later, less than five percent of that prairie remains, due to the impacts of urban sprawl, rapid development and overgrazing by livestock—all of which were ushered in by the very westward expansion Lewis and Clark initiated. Hundreds of native species of plants and animals are on the brink of extinction today as a result.

North America’s unique tallgrass prairies evolved over millennia. The wide variety of grass species that make up the ecosystem’s foundation survived well along with modest rainfall and regular, naturally-caused fires. Sixty-five million free-roaming bison sustained themselves on the abundant grasses, in turn sustaining Native American tribes such as the Sioux.

Earlier this year, a coalition of non-profit groups under the banner of the Northern Plains Conservation Network (NPCN) released a report entitled: "Ocean of Grass: A Conservation Vision for the Northern Great Plains," documenting and describing the native biodiversity of the tallgrass prairies. The report sets forth a long-term proposal for conserving and restoring prairie habitat such that, by the year 2050, the region can support 20,000 wild bison, half a million acres of prairie dog towns, and stable populations of all grassland-dependent birds.

Congress helped spur the process along in 1996 by setting aside over 10,000 pristine prairie acres in Kansas" Flint Hills region as the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The National Park Trust, a non-profit conservation organization, purchased the land in 1994 and today co-manages the property with the National Park Service. Visitors can take self-guided tours on various nature trails and participate in "living history" programs that demonstrate the ecological importance of maintaining tallgrass prairies.

Believing that the establishment of the Tall Grass Prairie Reserve is a good step but not enough to sustain dwindling wildlife populations, the NPCN is calling for the establishment of one million additional acres of tallgrass prairie across the Midwest. The group is hard at work identifying key areas where replanting and reintroducing native grass species could help create safe havens for a variety of wildlife species.

CONTACTS: Northern Plains Conservation Network, http://www.npcn.net; Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, http://www.nps.gov/tapr; National Park Trust, http://www.parktrust.org.