The CD Packaging Debate

Environmentalists head for another round with music industry

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN the phase-out of vinyl recordings began and compact discs started to take over the marketplace, record companies came up with the now infamous ``long box'' - a 12-inch package, the same height as a vinyl record, that would fit into the same space that used to be occupied by LPs. Why infamous? The long box turned out to be the environmentalist's nightmare - an oblong piece of useless cardboard that is torn off and thrown away as soon as a CD is purchased (the CD itself comes in a plastic case called a ``jewel box.'') When the controversy hit the papers, record companies and the National Association of Record Merchandisers (NARM) began to consider alternatives to satisfy both retailers and customers.

``You're looking at a yuppie type of market, a 25 to 35 type of market,'' says Louis Vaccarelli, Senior Director of Production for RCA Records. ``These people are very ecologically conscious.'' While both the controversy and use of the long box continue, RCA has switched to 100 percent recycled board. ``It's the least we can do,'' Mr. Vaccarelli says.

Meanwhile, several artists, including Sting and singer/guitarist Raffi, have eschewed the long box in an effort to bring the issue to wider public awareness. Two states have introduced legislation to ban the box: New York proposed a bill last summer, and California followed on March 5.

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Vaccarelli says ``We don't like anything that legislates the business.... Business should react to what the consumer wants.''

In this case, the consumer doesn't want the long box, so the industry has been scrambling for an alternative. At the recent NARM convention, the packaging of choice was the Eco-Pak, a fold-out cardboard box that houses a plastic tray for the disc. The box, before folding, would stand approximately the height of the long box. WEA International, the powerful recording conglomerate owned by Time Warner, announced after the convention that it would adopt the Eco-Pak, with the hope that the rest of the recor ding industry would follow.

But consumers who have written angry letters feel that the Eco-Pak is cumbersome and nowhere near as durable as the jewel box. So why all the fuss? Why not just use the jewel box alone? The jewel box has been the standard worldwide (except the US) since CDs were first manufactured. US retailers complain that they would have to refit their stores at great expense to display the jewel box properly, and that because of its size, it's easy to steal.

BUT there are ways to keep the jewel-box-only format and avoid these problems, as the rest of the world has proved. Susanna Seirafi is marketing coordinator for Lift, a company that has created a high-security jewel-box-only system where the discs are kept behind the counter. Ms. Seirafi suggests that the packaging controversy is about more than ecology.

``The parent companies don't really care about the environment,'' says Seirafi, referring to conglomerates like WEA. ``The bottom line is: what is it going to save me, and what is it going to cost me? WEA introduced [the Eco-Pak] because Time Warner owns Ivy Hill, the packaging company that manufactures it.... Some record companies ... want to go jewel box only because it's the global standard.'' Record companies would just as soon ditch the long box, because it costs them 40 cents each.

``But it's the parent company that's been telling them `we have to have the long box' - because they own the packaging company,'' says Seirafi. Now they're pushing the Eco-Pak, a package that Seirafi says hasn't been tested in stores.

Raffi, the popular children's performer who has recently come out with an environmental album titled ``Evergreen Everblue,'' is also skeptical about the Eco-Pak. ``It sounds awful to me,'' he said in a phone interview. ``We have an existing format right now that's internationally accepted.''

Raffi has become a spokesman for the long box issue. ``The irony is I have an ecology album out, and nobody wants to talk about the music!'' He's come up with a plan which he spelled out in a recent Billboard magazine editorial: The industry should go jewel box only, and with the 40 cents they save from not using long boxes for each CD, help retailers refit their stores.

The Lift company has taken it a step further - they've invented a tray that drops into existing display bins, so retailers can display the jewel boxes without refitting their stores. One criticism of the Lift system is the time it takes for the salesperson to retrieve the CD from behind the counter. Company representative Seirafi says, ``The only delay is in the actual setup for about a week while you train your employees.... One of our stores has 17,000 CDs, and it's a total breeze.''

Meanwhile, WEA continues to promote the Eco-Pak, which is likely to become the industry standard, barring a major consumer revolt.

For information about Lift System, write: 115 River Road, Suite 105

Edgewater, NJ 07020

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