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iWaste: the real cost of music and how you can trim the bill

Love your iPhone, iPod or some other MP3 player? Great. But what are you going to do when it comes time to get rid of it? Did you know many electronic gadgets such as MP3 players contain heavy metals and other toxic chemicals that are not safe to simply throw out in the trash?

The latest issue of Alternatives journal, on the theme of Music and the Environment, includes my article on digital waste in the music industry. There are some solutions emerging to help reduce the production of electronic waste and for the safe disposal of MP3 players. The problems is that many people simply don’t know about the options that exist. We still have a long way to go. I’ve posted the full article below and here is an excerpt:

The explosion of portable MP3 players over the last few years has created a host of new problems. Yes, CDs contain metals and petroleum-derived plastics, but MP3 players contain heavy metals and other toxic chemicals, such as lead, cadmium, mercury and brominated flame retardants, which have been linked to health ailments including kidney damage and neurological impairment. When MP3 players are discarded in landfills, these chemicals can leach into groundwater. Adding to the problem is the short life span of most MP3 players. With 300 million iPods sold since 2002 and a virtual stranglehold on worldwide digital music sales thanks to iTunes, Apple has been singled out by green groups that have accused the company of encouraging the “planned obsolescence” of its ubiquitous gadgets.

iWaste
The real cost of music, and how you can trim the bill.

I download almost all of my music these days from iTunes, and rarely visit a music retailer. It seems that I’m not alone. Compact disc sales in North America have dropped 52 per cent since 2000. Digital downloads, on the other hand, increased 13 per cent in 2010, and digital sales now represent more than a quarter of the music industry’s global income. The transition to digital music means less aluminum goes into CD production, paper liner notes disappear, and fewer environmentally damaging plastics are used to make discs, jewel cases, vinyl records and cassette tapes. What’s more, digital music has the potential to reduce the energy used to produce and deliver music to consumers, all of which must surely be good for the environment, right?

Well, it’s not quite so simple. The explosion of portable MP3 players over the last few years has created a host of new problems. Yes, CDs contain metals and petroleum-derived plastics, but MP3 players contain heavy metals and other toxic chemicals, such as lead, cadmium, mercury and brominated flame retardants, which have been linked to health ailments including kidney damage and neurological impairment. When MP3 players are discarded in landfills, these chemicals can leach into groundwater.

Neither Canada nor the US has implemented regulations for limiting the use of toxic materials in electronics products. Many international companies voluntarily comply with Europe’s Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive, but the lack of a certification process in Canada makes it difficult to know which products have met the criteria.

Adding to the problem is the short life span of most MP3 players. With 300 million iPods sold since 2002 and a virtual stranglehold on worldwide digital music sales thanks to iTunes, Apple has been singled out by green groups that have accused the company of encouraging the “planned obsolescence” of its ubiquitous gadgets. Rather than replacing old batteries or repairing defective iPods, consumers often buy the latest model. “The current electronics business model encourages disposal,” says Sarah O’Brien of the Oregon-based Green Electronics Council, a certification body that evaluates products for environmental performance. “The industry needs to either make its products completely free of toxics, [make them] re-usable and recyclable, or substantially improve durability.”

In other respects, however, Apple has become an industry leader in greening its operations. Since being targeted by Greenpeace several years ago, “the company has made significant strides in phasing out most (but not all) toxics, reducing packaging materials and improving energy efficiency,” says Tom Dowdall, a climate
and energy campaigner with Greenpeace International.

When an MP3 player does reach the end of its useful life, there are no national standards in Canada governing
its disposal. Waste operations are the responsibility of municipalities, and although recycling options exist in most communities, many MP3 players simply end up in landfills. One solution is found in “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) laws that require companies to take back products for recycling or safe disposal. Such laws are already on the books in many European countries, and Environment Canada has developed an action plan with the provinces and territories to support the development of EPR programs for different products,
including electronic waste.

Where recycling programs do exist, most consumers simply don’t know about them. Apple stores accept iPods
for recycling and give customers 10 per cent off a new model when they turn in their old one, but this information is not part of the package that comes with a new iPod. For people who can’t visit a store, the company website lists provincial recycling schemes for Alberta, BC, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan, and offers a telephone number for residents elsewhere. “Companies need to do a better job of communicating the availability of recycling programs and improving the convenience element. If people don’t know, they won’t do it,” says O’Brien.

As for powering the digital music industry, there appears to be some cautiously good news. A recent US study
found that digital music consumes an average of 65 per cent less energy and produces fewer emissions thanks to the elimination of CDs, packaging and the physical delivery of CDs to the household. (It is still too early to know how new technologies, such as on-demand music streaming from enormous data centres, might change the energy consumption equation.)

Regulations on the use and disposal of toxic materials, EPR laws, eco-certifications, improved product durability and better communications of recycling options are all needed to green the industry. In the meantime, a few simple steps can make the use of MP3 players more sustainable: Before purchasing a new player, consider whether you need the gadget, or whether your current player works just fine or can be repaired. Check for product durability, the company’s use of toxic chemicals and its take-back policies. Used electronics can often be donated to charities and schools, or recycled. And if you don’t have an MP3 player, eschew CDs packagedin plastic jewel cases in favour of thin paper sleeves, especially those made from Earth-friendly materials. The transition to digital music may well prove to be environmentally beneficial, but we’re not there yet.
Mark Brooks is a Montreal-based journalist
and writer.
Discover more about e-waste, which companies
are top and bottom of the toxic product
class, and solutions to the problem at greenpeace.
org/international/en/campaigns/
toxics/electronics.
Electronics Product Stewardship Canada is
working to ensure that all Canadians have
access to e-waste facilities. Find out wh at is
available in your province at epsc.ca.

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