Recording Artists Leave a Plastic Legacy

By Darcy Ellis

It's fair to say that recording artists, by their very definition, want their work to live on forever. But not as plastic waste in a landfill.

Yet that's exactly where an estimated 10 billion CDs and DVDs have wound up around the U.S. since 2005, as music fans increasingly favor digital music streaming services and downloads over compact discs (each year, more than 55 million boxes of software also go to landfills and incinerators). The problem will get worse as consumers get rid of obsolete or unwanted music collections and retailers look to unload unsellable inventory.

Environment advocates are pushing for the elimination of especially harmful CD packaging and more widespread efforts to properly dispose of CDs and cases, which the vast majority of recycling centers do not accept. As for how long it takes for a compact disc to break down in a landfill, it essentially won't break down in any measurable way ever. 

The problem of waste in this particular sector has gained attention over the past decade as music industry trends signal the sidelining of the CD altogether. Industry experts say that, like vinyl (despite a resurgence in popularity among collectors), there will always be a market for compact discs. Those paying close attention include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which notes that 5.5 million tons of software is currently going into landfills and incinerators in addition to Americans throwing away “millions of CDs” each year. 

The harm comes from the fact that CDs are made from a combination of mined minerals, petroleum-derived plastics and various dyes and lacquers, making them not just a drain on natural resources, but practically indestructible in the natural environment. Incinerating CDs only releases those chemicals into the atmosphere instead of our groundwater. Also, to manufacture a pound of plastic to make 30 CDs, you need 300 cubic feet of natural gas, 2 cups of crude oil and 24 gallons of water, according to Eco Coalition.

Even worse than the CDs themselves are the plastic jewel cases that hold them. Made of polyvinyl chloride, a substance classified by the EPA as a human carcinogen, jewel cases are discarded more often than compact discs. Ask any hipster downsizer with a tiny-house dream: jewel cases break easily and take up a lot of space. 

"We’re using oil we can’t spare and known chemical carcinogens to create something most people don’t want,” wrote Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist consultant at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a 2007 Billboard Magazine op-ed titled “More Than Hype.”

“Think of it as being 100 percent global warming pollution, hazardous air emissions, hazardous waste and lost biodiversity," Hershkowitz lamented. "Factor in the virgin timber-based paper inserts and you have what might be the most environmentally ignorant package ever devised.”

An ongoing effort to phase out jewel cases can be traced to a movement in the music industry 20 years ago. Bands like Pearl Jam, Wilco, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, U2, the Black Crowes and Bonnie Raitt were among the heavy hitters who helped spark a modest plastic-free CD case trend. Billboard Magazine, in a Nov. 16, 1996 article titled “Artists Driving Trend of Alternative CD Packaging,” described the move to paper-based packaging as an artistic revolution of sorts, with the bands seeking ways to re-energize the music scene and stand out in the sea of cellophane-enshrouded jewel cases at Kmart and Walmart. 

The alternative packaging was a significant improvement ecologically. Cardboard-based packaging reduces jewel-case greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent, according to greenmusic.com. Not producing plastic jewel cases means not introducing to the environment known chemical carcinogens. It was a step in the right direction, but a lack of widespread consumer buy-in and record executive endorsement may have prevented alternative packaging from becoming the industry standard rather than a responsible alternative. 

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The initial reaction to the cardboard packaging was mixed. While some consumers appreciated the fact the cases didn’t crack or shatter like the jewel cases, others complained the CDs scratched more easily in the cardboard cases. There were more matters of practicality, such as the way the cardboard cases didn’t fit quite right in desktop jewel case holders or existing store bins, points of contention with buyers and retailers. And perception was a problem, too. The cardboard felt “flimsy” — i.e., cheap.

An online forum from 2001 at ars technica blasts the headline: “WTF is the deal with new CDs selling WITHOUT jewel cases?” Commenters blame the disappearance of jewel cases on the “greedy ass record companies” and the Recording Industry of America Association trying to save a few bucks and cheat consumers. “… for 17 or 18 bucks I am GOING to get my goddamned jewel case,” wrote one commenter.

In reality, that goddamned jewel case was less expensive and a lot easier for the record companies to produce, and in a cost-driven industry, it was a testament to the power of the artists that the labels released the cardboard cases at all. According to a 1996 Billboard article, manufacturing the alternative cases means slower turnaround times and higher labor costs. Most record executives were/are not fans.

“I personally have always been opposed to paperboard packages, probably for the same reason other execs are — it’s just a pain in the ass,” Reprise Records Vice President of Sales Dave Stein told Billboard.

Pain in the ass or not, the efforts of Pearl Jam, Joni Mitchell and others have, two decades later, spawned numerous eco-friendly record labels and even organizations within the music industry devoted to encouraging greener practices. Green Music Group, for example, is a coalition of artists, venues and record labels that works toward reducing artists’ environmental impacts. It was founded in 2010 by Reverb, which is itself is a non-profit organization founded in 2004 by Guster guitarist Adam Gardner and his wife, Lauren Sullivan. Reverb focuses on keeping tours and festivals as green as possible — one of many causes supported by Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Will streaming win out?

In the environment’s favor is a shifting trend in the music industry that sees consumers moving away from compact discs entirely in 2016.

The popularity of streaming music services — and the ease with which consumers may access their favorite songs — has been on a steady rise over the past decade, resulting in less demand and thus fewer CD sales.

The Recording Industry of America Association’s shipment and revenue statistics for the first half of 2015 reveal a 31 percent decline in CD sales in the U.S., where downloads now account for the largest source of revenue (40 percent) in the music industry — despite suffering a 4 percent decline themselves. On the rise is the use of streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify, which allow subscribers to customize their own listening experiences based on personal preferences from a virtually endless catalogue of artists and genres. Streaming provided 32 percent of the music industry’s revenue during the first half of 2015, according to the RIAA, an indication of yet another turning tide in consumer habits.

But even with a definitive shift away from CD purchases, record labels continue to manufacture 2 billion jewel cases every year, according to the NRDC, so a plastic-free music industry isn't appearing on the horizon just yet. 

There are also still billions of unwanted CDs and cases on store shelves and in personal music collections around the globe, with a shockingly small amount of those plastic products ending up recycled or upcycled.

As with every sector, consumers' music-buying choices put pressure on the industry to produce better packaging. Meanwhile, donating CDs to schools for art projects is one among dozens of suggestions for reusing obsolete music collections. There are also a growing number of businesses specializing in recycling CDs, DVDs and their plastic cases — waste now referred to as “technotrash,” which again, most municipal recycling centers do not accept.

The CD Recycling Center of America urges consumers to not put their discards in the trash. “If you use, sell, promote, distribute, or manufacture compact discs, it is your responsibility to promote how to recycle them,” they state on their website.

But, contrary to what you should do with your old CDs, just throw away this statement proffered by the CDRCA: “Compacts discs, when recycled properly, will stop unnecessary pollution, conserve natural resources, and help slow global warming.” Actually, streaming your music is much better for the planet.

Darcy Ellis is a PPC contributor