Dear Umbra,

I’m a dedicated cineaste, and over the last decade I’ve built up a large library (around 5,000 titles) of classic films on VHS and old-fashioned laser discs. I have been anxious to start adding DVDs to my collection, with all the extra features they offer, but I’ve held off because I know that any further expansion of my collection will require me to make more space — i.e., get rid of a bunch of bulky plastic videocassettes and laser discs. I can probably sell a few of the tapes, and donate some to a library, but I’m fairly certain I’ll end up with a whole bunch of leftovers to junk. Is there a less environmentally offensive alternative to the landfill? Is my concern misplaced, when the more pressing issue is owning so much stuff? Should I be forced to choose between my collection and my burgeoning environmental sensibilities?

In the Dark

Dearest In the Dark,

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DVD killed the video star.

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Good for you for being concerned about your gargantuan film collection’s trashy implications. But I don’t think you need to choose between your passion for film and your nascent enviro consciousness. Firstly, I’ve found a place to degauss and recycle your discards. Secondly, where’s the incentive to be an environmentalist if you have to jettison your movies? You need not eradicate fun, though owning Tons of Stuff violates the first precept of the trite-but-true eco-trinity: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle.

Must you swim in Gaia guilt? No. Laser discs and VHS tapes are small consumer items and, generally, smaller items have a smaller environmental impact — fewer raw materials, lighter to ship, and, in this instance, no evil leaching poisons.

As you mentioned, the second precept — Reuse — will be fairly easy. I don’t know a lot about the used VHS market, but I doubt you’ll have much trouble off-loading to libraries, schools, yard sales, and friends.

When the reuse well runs dry — if no one wants that battered copy of Klute — it’s on to Recycle. With your generous supply of identical materials, it’ll be one-stop shopping for a recycler. Et, voila!: Send unwanted laser discs and VHS tapes to GreenDisk. GreenDisk is a large company involved in commercial electronic media reuse and recycling; they are also willing to absorb your personal laser discs and VHS tapes into their waste-reprocessing stream. Your tapes will be degaussed and resold to cities and police departments for surveillance tapes; your discs will be shredded and sold for plastics reuse.

But what is this degaussing? It’s a fancy word for sticking videotape under a giant magnet. The modern process of electronic media erasure takes its name from Johann Karl Friedrich Gauss, a brilliant 19th-century mathematician who calculated the orbits of asteroids, fathered the mathematical theory of electricity, and developed a measurement for magnetic induction. History has bestowed his name on the centimeter-gram-second unit of magnetic flux density, the gauss. Anyhoo, privacy protection is a large concern in the electronic media recycling field, and degaussing assures the erasure of delicate or personal materials through scrambling of the magnetic registers on audio- and videotape. GreenDisk guarantees degaussing, so any wretched home movies you’ve made are safe to send along with Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterworks.