Dear Umbra,

As I was carrying a stack of CDs from the car into my home, my sister laughed and showed me the size of her MP3 player, which contains well over 100 times the music at a fraction of the size. Environmentally, which causes less of an impact? I hear that all these (non-recyclable) portable devices are terrible for the environment, and I’ve had some of my CDs going on (gasp!) 15 years. Downloading seems like it produces less waste, but the type of waste that is generated is what concerns me.

Kas Sut
Davis, Calif.

Dearest Kas,

If the always-hoped-for, side-by-side analysis of these two systems existed out there in the world, it would be music to my ears. But I didn’t find such, so we must weigh what we know to be true.

Just push play.

Photo: iStockphoto.

Let’s learn about CDs first. They are made of clear polycarbonate backed with a reflective metal, usually aluminum. This involves injecting stuff into molds, which sounds fun and squirty. Part of the process is even called “sputtering.” The disc is lacquered, the label silk-screened on, and the whole thing packaged in paper and plastic. The paper is usually virgin, and the plastic — well, I fear it is PVC, my friends.

The CD gets shipped (more impact), we buy it, and we listen to it on a CD player or computer. These machines both contain the heavy metals customarily found in electronic devices — see our discussions of PCs and cell phones. They also consume electricity.

When we tire of the CD, we sell it, donate it, or throw it away. If we are very good, we send it and its packaging to an “e-waste” recycler. When the CD player itself goes to the great jukebox in the sky, we probably discard it as well, since electronic-waste programs are just gaining steam. If we are very good, we check with groups like eRecycle to find out where to take it instead.

Back in MP3 land, we have a small, computerized device which, by necessity of purpose, fashion, and size, is also chock-a-block full of heavy metals. It uses (toxin-filled!) rechargeable batteries that may or may not eventually be recycled. To fill the player with music, you spend time downloading files — which, according to one study by Digital Europe, theoretically means 50 percent less resource consumption than buying CDs at a store or online. This is a substantial difference, but as the study points out, it can vary greatly depending on things like people’s downloading habits and internet connections.

When it comes to disposing of an MP3 player, we are also concerned about recycling. And there’s the further complication of duration. You’ve had your CDs for 15 years. Will MP3 players find such permanence? Or will they be akin to cell phones, with each model quickly o’erthrown by the next generation? I suspect the latter, at least at this point in their development, which would mean more waste. The good news, in this case, is that Apple will take back old iPods, and Dell will take back any Dell-branded electronic product too.

I’m afraid I have no overly scientific conclusion for you, though I fear your CDs may not stack up. However, I can say this with certainty: electronics manufacture and disposal is moving toward Solid Waste Crisis proportions. Instead of worrying so much about how you play your music, worry about pressuring manufacturers and governments to require end-of-life take-back plans for electronic products. To get started, visit EPA’s product stewardship pages, where you can learn more about state, federal, and international efforts to keep these toxics out of our landfills.

Harmonically,
Umbra