The Ecology of the Disc

In playing to couch potatoes, Disney's plan to distribute movies on self-destructing DVDs will add new tonnage to optical-media landfill.

Walt Disney Co.s latest scheme for distribution of movies dubbed "EZ-D" has me reeling like a spin on Disneylands Mad Tea Party attraction. Sadly, its the perfect example of everything thats wrong with the 21st Century couch-potato lifestyle.

As described in this Mondays Storage Web Digest, Disneys Buena Vista Home Entertainment Division will use FlexPlay Technologies proprietary dye layering that becomes unplayable after a 48-hour period. (See Storage Web Digest: The Sad State Of Storage Security for more of the story.)

In addition to the sale and rental of traditional DVDs, Disney will offer these short-lived versions. After opening the wrapper, the EZ-D disc works as usual for an unlimited number of plays in any commercial DVD player. But only for two days—the disc begins to degrade immediately upon breaking the seal.

This reminded me of some of the very earliest CD burners on the market that had overactive optical lasers. When played, the drives would overwrite the data on a disc. Instead of WORM, these drives offered write-once, read-once discs. Thankfully for the early adopters, the bugs were worked out.

According to FlexPlay, EZ-D will "expand the overall home-entertainment market by appealing to consumers whose rental consumption has diminished due to the perceived inconvenience of the current rental process." Of course, late fees and returning a disc to the video-rental store isnt "real" inconvenience, its just the perception of inconvenience.

Is there enough perception to build a market for these discs? Perhaps so.

Now, I admit that nobody likes to return rented videos. However, the EZ-D technology appears to be aimed at the folks who rent a big pile of movies on an already busy weekend and then complain about the late fees or having to return the video unwatched. Or people who dont like the selection of pay-per-view on cable and complain about the high prices of purchasing titles. In other words: a huge market.

But what are we left with? Yet another pile of bad discs. And a new way to expand the estimated 100,000 pounds of obsolete optical media that goes into the trash every month. (This statistic is from an interesting PDF poster from the Environmental Protection Agency on the lifecycle of optical media.)

According to Disney, users can simply recycle the discs. This is easier said than done. Individuals will have to collect their old discs and then send them at their own expense to recycling centers that accept them.

There are no vendor-organized programs for recycling optical media as there are for laser cartridges, which are then refilled or refurbished and then resold. This was also a common practice with old tape cassettes and floppy diskettes; There were businesses that collected them, degaussed them and then packed them up for discounted sales.

In addition, theres a good chance that recycling the EZ-D discs will be a tall order for the very people who cant summon the will to return a late rental disc. Sheesh. This EZ disc should be relabeled the "LAZY disc."

Meanwhile, we all should recycle our old CDs instead of tossing them into the trash. While the discs cant be reused, the plastics can be recycled for use in other plastic products, or even the enclosures of consumer-electronic devices.

Here are a few sites with useful information about the environmental impact of technology as well as the practicalities of CD and DVD recycling:

  • The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has a number of links to companies that recycle media as well as those that handle other technology products.
  • The Center for the Development of Recycling at San Jose State University offers a interesting search tool for finding places to recycle a wide variety of products.
  • No More AOL CDs is a group that is collecting the free discs sent from AOL, Netscape and CompuServe. When the pile of discs reaches one million, the organization will return them all to the sender as a protest.

David Morgenstern is a longtime reporter of the storage industry as well as a veteran of the dotcom boom in the storage-rich fields of professional content creation and digital video.