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The Uneasy Afterlife of Our Dazzling Trash

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Every day, for the past 14 years, Bruce Bennett has received packages filled with CDs. Sometimes a few at a time and sometimes in packs of hundreds, shiny old discs arrive at his CD Recycling Center of America in Salem, N.H., a 300-foot blue trailer tucked behind a commercial strip, to ascend to the CD afterlife.

The CD recycling process requires Mr. Bennett, 55, to store a truckload, or approximately 44,000 pounds, of CDs in a warehouse before the discs can be granulated into raw polycarbonate plastic, resulting in a white and clear powdery material that glints and resembles large snowflake crystals stuck together.

The material, which takes one million years to decompose in a landfill, can eventually be used to mold durable items for cars, home building materials and eyeglasses.

But that’s assuming anybody buys the raw material.

The polycarbonate granules used to be sold mostly to China, where the United States sent the bulk of its recycling until 2018 before China restricted imports of mixed paper and most plastic. The price that China was willing to pay per pound of granulated polycarbonate began to dip in 2008, Mr. Bennett said, and by 2011 it had plummeted.

Mr. Bennett did find polycarbonate buyers in India, but now, because of lockdowns caused by the pandemic, he doesn’t break even. Still, as a self-professed lifelong environmentalist — he began to recycle CDs in 1988 because, as a CD manufacturer, he had to learn how to properly dispose of damaged batches — Mr. Bennett is hopeful that CD recycling will catch on.

“I realized that I know how to recycle this,” Mr. Bennett said in an interview. “But I don’t think the world knows.”

CDs may seem like a relic, but when they entered consumer homes in the 1980s, they were a revelation in information sharing.

“In the early ’80s, information storage was mainly in magnetic tape and magnetic devices,” said Kees Immink, who was one of eight engineers to create the CD in 1979. “The CD was groundbreaking.”

His team had started with the goal of making a disc capable of storing music longer than Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” which is close to 70 minutes long. What resulted was something that could save “other digital media and essentially all software,” he recalled.

“Mechanical engineers who produced excellent gramophones became instantly obsolete,” Mr. Immink said.

CDs were less than half the size of 12-inch vinyls, and could rewind or skip forward at the press of a button, unlike tapes, which required winding. Consumers could also travel with their CDs, thanks to Sony’s invention of the portable CD player in 1984. The sound quality was better, and discs could hold a lot more information than cassettes could.

CDs became ubiquitous: In the 1990s, AOL sent them to potential internet subscribers. In the mid-’90s, makers of video games began to shift away from cartridges and toward discs. By 2000, more than 900 million music CDs were sold, a record number that was never surpassed again, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. (Eminem, Destiny’s Child and Britney Spears were all top sellers.)

And then, just a year later, Apple released the first iPod, which allowed users to carry 1,000 CD-quality songs in a six-ounce device in their pocket. Compact discs began their shift from being innovative and covetable to clunky. This month brings another small blow to CDs as Sony and Microsoft are releasing the latest editions of the Playstation and the Xbox. Both come in two versions, one with a disc drive and one without; in both cases, the version with a disc drive costs more.

Mr. Immink — who now researches ways to store information in DNA — said that he has no feelings about the fact that the CD is slowly phasing out of production and use. It’s a cycle he understands. Just as he made the engineers of the gramophone obsolete, it is now his turn.

“It was a long time ago,” Mr. Immink said. “All those people that worked so hard on the radio are now obsolete. My colleagues and I had so much fun and we laughed a lot while we created the CD. We knew we were making history.”

Many organizations, like GreenDisk, provide drop boxes for castoff CDs and other outdated tech. David Beschen founded GreenDisk in 1992, after a stint marketing Microsoft products, and he still runs it.

“I saw an opportunity to basically clean up some of the stuff I had been responsible for marketing,” Mr. Beschen said. “All of this stuff was just being incinerated or buried.”

He ships the CDs accumulated from the tech drop boxes to the National Industries for the Blind, where they are sorted and ground into polycarbonate flakes. That raw plastic is then shipped to manufacturers to make plastic materials to sell, including spools for producing 3-D printing filament. The filament is then sent back to the N.I.B., where it is packaged to be sold to the federal government, Mr. Beschen said. (He said the government has used the 3-D filament for many things, including repairing broken parts on Humvees and nuclear missiles.)

GreenDisk also works with companies including Warner Brothers, Disney and the Library of Congress to dispose of CDs, because GreenDisk will delete the information from them first.

“Once a CD is in a trash dump, it can be published to the public domain and people can legally take that, sell it and re-market it as well,” Mr. Beschen said. Industries were burning millions of units of CDs to avoid that, he added.

In a global sense, recycling CDs is not a big environmental priority right now, according to Judith Enck, a former E.P.A. regional administrator, who founded Beyond Plastics, an anti-plastic project based at Bennington College in Vermont.

“Plastic recycling has been an abysmal failure,” she said, adding that the rate for recycling plastics in the United States has been significantly low. “That is an issue that definitely needs attention.”

“You look at other materials, like cardboard and glass and aluminum, and that’s all included in curbside recycling programs because there are businesses that will buy all of that for a reliable market,” Ms. Enck said. “There just aren’t markets for this type of plastic.”

So, for now, old CDs languish in basement or attics, or just end up with other plastics — in the trash.

In a recent interview, Janice Brandt, a former senior consultant at AOL and the marketing guru behind the company’s 1990s campaign that produced millions of CDs for potential customers, reflected on how much has changed, technologically, in just a few decades.

The AOL campaign, which at one point in the late 1990s had a budget of $750 million, was a huge moneymaker for AOL that brought millions of new users to the internet. Ms. Brandt said she thought that probably every other CD in existence is an AOL CD. (Mr. Bennett still receives AOL CDs to be recycled daily at his plant.)

“I thought that the best way was for people to actually see it,” Ms. Brandt said, of what AOL had to offer. She orchestrated the placement of CDs in magazines, college campuses, offices, bookstores and banks. At one point AOL was flash freezing CDs and packaging them with Omaha Steaks.

She knows how crazy that sounds, and was thoughtful about the possible environmental impact of her marketing. But Ms. Brandt has no regrets. “It really is remarkable, and those things don’t sound so remarkable now because it is all at our fingertips,” she said, of the internet.

At one point, an AOL chat room or instant message was cutting-edge virtual gathering. The fact that virtual society is so much more advanced today makes it easy to forget how far we have come.

“We drive around, but we don’t have a sense of what it took for us to get to the first car,” Ms. Brandt said.

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