Disposable DVDs spur new recycling debate
It's marketed as a consumer convenience - a DVD with a movie that erases itself after two days, saving a return trip to the video store.
Some environmentalists, however, consider it an example of a disposable society run amok - a product that's replacing a reusable disc with one that ends up on the trash 48 hours after it is purchased.
Whether it's a convenience or an environmental problem, it also can be viewed as a case study in the debate about how much responsibility corporations should have for recycling.
New York-based Flexplay Technologies and Walt Disney Co. launched the ``ez-Ds'' in four trial markets last fall, and announced March 11 that they plan to expand it to four more.
The concept is simple: consumers buy the disc at locations like convenience and grocery stores. Two days after it is taken out of the package, a special coating reacts with air and turns the disc black, making it unreadable by DVD players.
Environmentalists responded by mounting phone-in campaigns against Walt Disney, which thus far is the only company putting its movies on Flexplay discs, and organizing on-street protests in one test market, in Austin, Texas. One grocery chain there announced in January that it would stop carrying the DVDs.
Flexplay said the critics miss the point. The company said it set up a recycling program for the polycarbonate discs before it ever launched the product. Consumers can go to the company's Web site and print out mailing labels and postage, they can request that the company mail them an envelope, and the company has set up at least one dropoff location in each market, said Flexplay spokesman Larry Reiff.
It's more than most others have done, he said, noting that Internet service providers and other software makers regularly mail out discs unsolicited.
``We all know there are companies that send out thousands upon thousands of these discs with no plan for recycling,'' Reiff said. ``Flexplay has probably the most aggressive program out there.''
But environmentalists say Flexplay should do more.
David Wood, executive director of the GrassRoots Recycling Network in Madison, Wis., said Flexplay and Disney could follow the model of DVD rent-by-mail firm Netflix, and provide a postage-paid envelope with the product, to make it easier for the consumer to ship the disc to a recycler.
``Netflix has created what I'd call a more intelligent system, and one that is not premised on waste,'' Wood said. ``If a product has a short lifespan, there are real opportunities for the company to provide a return mechanism.''
Wood said it's not easy to print the postage from the company's Web site.
The Flexplay discs that consumers return are mailed to a Seattle company, GreenDisk, which aggregates them with other discs and sends them to plastic recyclers. Flexplay claims the market trials are going well. It recently lowered the price, from $6.99 to $5.99.
Reiff declined to estimate how many of the discs have been recycled in the trials.
He said the company is considering a system like Netflix, but is weighing the cost.
``We're investigating that,'' he said. ``There's no firm plan to do that, and there's no firm plan not to do that.''