Can CDs and Their Cases Be Recycled?

Can CDs and Their Cases Be Recycled?

With the current speed of technology development, many things that were once a standard become obsolete very quickly. Often these new technologies require new hardware. Let’s take a newer history of music recording as an example – vinyl records were the first, then came cassettes, CDs, MP3s and finally, streaming services. This progression happened in less than a century, and it took less than 50 years to get from cassettes to streaming services. While there are some records, cassettes and CDs that are considered very valuable on the collectors’ market, there are many others, deemed less worthy, that are lying scattered in landfills or collecting dust in basements, storage rooms, and attics. The consumeristic nature of this technological development leaves a lot of waste behind. CDs are especially problematic; they are still widely available and produced, yet their use is decreasing. This results in millions of used and unused CDs getting thrown away each year. Sadly, most of them end up in landfills, where they are left to degrade over the course of the next few millennia. Can we somehow decrease this immense output of plastic into the environment? Can CDs be recycled? To answer this question, we must first look into the materials used for making CDs and their cases.

What are CD cases and CDs made of?

CD cases are usually either made of polystyrene (#6) or polypropylene (#5):

  • Polystyrene (PS) is one of the nastier types of plastic for a number of reasons – it is rarely recycled, it requires at least half a millennium to decompose and contains substances that are suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins, e.g. styrene. Polystyrene is used for making styrofoam, styropor and polystyrene paper. Considering that this type of plastic has very good heat insulating qualities and is very light, it is commonly used for making food trays, cups, various types of packaging and cases, as well as insulation. While all types of polystyrene can be recycled and reused, they are currently not utilized in such way due to a lack of investments and incentives. This is why most residential waste and recycling services do not accept polystyrene.
Can CDs and Their Cases Be Recycled
  • Polypropylene (PP) is the second most widely produced commodity plastic, commonly used for making various types of containers and packaging. Because polypropylene is light, robust and can withstand high temperatures, it found its application in various industries. Its heat and chemical resistance are very advantageous qualities when it comes to making medical and laboratory equipment (e.g. it can withstand high temperatures of an autoclave and be properly sterilized). Just like polystyrene, polypropylene is recyclable, but in reality, it rarely is. However, things have started to go in a positive direction – interest in recycling PP is growing by the day. A lot of effort is currently being put into developing recycling technologies that can safely and efficiently recycle this type of plastic. 

Many recycling services don’t accept polystyrene, but there is an increasing number of ones that accept polypropylene. Ask your local curbside service if they accept such materials before trying to find specialized recycling services.

When it comes to CDs, the situation is a bit different considering that they are made of more than one type of plastic. A compact disk includes three layers made of three different materials:

  • The base layer is made of polycarbonate plastic;
  • A thin layer of aluminum covers the base layer;
  • The protective acrylic coating covers the middle layer.

Aluminum is one of the most frequently recycled products in the world, making it one of the eco-friendliest materials. Aluminum recycling is a closed-loop process (no new materials are required), which makes it highly profitable and energy-efficient. However, the situation is different when it comes to polycarbonate (PC) and acrylic plastic. Even though both belong to the miscellaneous recycling category (#7) and both are 100% recyclable, they significantly differ in qualities. PC gained its notoriety because it is made of bisphenol-A (BPA), a compound which acts as a xenohormone and exhibits estrogen-mimicking abilities. BPA most often gets released from polycarbonate plastic in incineration plants and landfills, finding its way into the environment. Luckily, there is growing attention for recycling PC and a great initiative to remove this source of pollution from the environment. There is an increasing number of curbside recycling services that accept polycarbonate plastic. Compared to PC, acrylic can be quite problematic when it comes to recycling. It is usually not accepted by curbside recycling services, as the majority of recycled acrylic waste is gathered at an industrial or business scale. 

How to Recycle CDs

Even though most of plastic materials used for making CDs are recyclable, the adequate recycling market for those forms of plastic is still quite small. While there are numerous aluminum recycling services and an increasing number of curbside services that are accepting polycarbonate plastics, CD recycling still remains problematic. For recycling to be efficient, materials need to be properly separated before being processed. Considering that CDs are made of a number of different materials, it requires a significant amount of work to separate them from each other. As a result, CD recycling is widely regarded as economically unviable. However, there are some ways to deal with this type of waste. Here are some tips that might help, based on the good old’ three R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle:

  • Listening to music, watching movies and series via streaming services is a great way to have access to all your favorite artists, movies and shows, without leaving any waste behind
  • Donate or sell old CDs and DVDs to a second-hand store or music reseller
  • Get creative – there are many very interesting DIY ideas available on Pinterest and similar websites; anything from making utilities, accessories or decorative clothing pieces, to creating magnificent works of art
Can CDs and Their Cases Be Recycled
  • There are some companies that aim to tackle with the issue of CD recycling in spite of perceived economic unviability, for example, CD Recycling Center of America – they have been working since 2006 and accept all CDs and DVDs, along with their cases; ask locally to find out whether there is such a company in your town. 

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