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Where Would All the Discs Go?

23 May, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

One response to Buena Vista Home Entertainment's plan to test expiring DVDs later this year is consumer reaction to the prospect of adding to the nation's solid waste stream.

Consumers posting to a variety of online discussion boards and home entertainment forums raise the questions over and over: How much waste would disposable DVDs create and how would it be absorbed?

“You can make some reasonable assumptions about it but until it hits the market it's hard to say specifically the impact it will have,” said Jon Koomey, an environmental policy at Lawrence Livermore Labratories who studied that very problem for Flexplay in 2000. “There is potentially 20 times more gasoline savings than plastic solid waste increase. Plastics are made from fossil fuels. There is this potential offsetting effect and it's not a 1-to-1 effect, it's a 20-to-1 effect.”

Koomey's assumptions, based on information available in 2000, include that expiring discs reach 10 percent of the total (DVD and VHS) rental figures for that year. In 2000, total residential and commercial waste generated nationwide was 220 million metric tons; about 60 percent of that was residential waste. If 10 percent of the year's rental trade had been in disposable discs and none of them were recycled, the discs would add about 5,600 metric tons to the waste stream. That compares to 25 million metric tons of all plastic waste for the year. Koomey's calculations also assume that in 80 percent of trips to rent a video and 50 percent of trips to return the rental, the video store is the sole destination.

For its part, Flexplay has worked with its technology partner, GE Plastics, on creating recycling opportunities. Many curbside recycling programs can accept the discs, Flexplay CEO Alan Blaustein said, and the company has worked with Green Disc of Columbia, Mo., on a program that lets consumers mail expired discs in for recycling.

“I do think that consumers will participate in a recycling program. We've taken the recycling nature of the product very seriously from the outset. We've created a program that on day one, consumers will be able to send a disc back to a centralized facility,” he said. “Within areas of California, you can take your optical media and just put them curbside. That is not the prevailing opportunity. But as the program expands, you should have opportunities within a retail environment to bring the discs back.”

Blaustein conceded his company has not discussed return programs with retailers.

“Without knowing who the retailers are ultimately going to be, Flexplay hasn't had conversations on that front,” he said. “There really have been no good post-consumer recycling programs put in place. The best we can do organizationally is make the program available and continue to be as proactive about it as we can.”

One consumer online had his own speculation on the matter:

“As for the recycling, the only way it would work is if when the disk filmed over, a note showed up that said it was worth 25 cents on your next purchase and you would be able to turn them in to the store,” he wrote.

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