EarthTalk: What to do about those hard-to-recycle CDs, DVDs, and their cases?

There are services that will let you recycle them, and a greener disc may be on the way.

Q: 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 e-mail

A: According to the US 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 that it’s nearly impossible to recycle products made of thin layers of various materials mixed together, most municipal recycling programs won’t accept them. So many discarded discs end up in the trash.

They degrade in landfills, polluting groundwater. But because they are so popular and cost so little to produce, it’s unlikely they will be replaced by something greener anytime soon.

Polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable plastic substitute made from corn and other agricultural wastes, could replace plastic polycarbonate as a disc’s main substrate, but it’s much more costly.

As for jewel cases, most are made from of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), an inexpensive petrochemical-based plastic that is notoriously difficult to recycle and has been linked to health problems in workers and those living near plants where it is produced.

Some labels use cardboard and paper jewel cases: Warner Music Group’s US division has been using 30 percent post-­recycled paper for all its CD and DVD packaging since 2005, even though they cost more and are less durable.

So what’s a conscientious consumer to do? Those willing to pay a small processing fee can send old CDs and DVDs to one of a handful of private companies (such as Washington-based GreenDisk) that recycle them into high-quality plastics used in auto parts, office equipment, alarm panels, street lights, electrical cable insulation, jewel cases, and more.

A shift in consumer preferences already under way may be just the thing to make everyone’s music and movie collections greener.

Consumers are already able to download some six million song titles from the 500 or so legal online music services on the Internet.

According to the International Fed­eration of the Phonographic In­­dus­try, digital sales now account for some 30 percent of all US music sales and 15 percent globally.

Most consumer analysts expect these percentages to grow steadily in the coming years. And that’s good news for the planet.

Got an environmental question? Write: EarthTalk, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or e-mail:

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