Somewhere in the world, members of a laser disc support group are tearing their hair out over tech purchases that have become obsolete. No sooner do we upgrade to the next music player, operating system or TV than the gears are set in motion for its obviously superior replacement. Maybe we should learn to take an active role in influencing what gets made and how. And if we were both environmentally conscious and data-storage hungry (and who isn't?), then perhaps the product we'd most ardently throw our weight behind would be Sanyo's MildDisc, an enviro-alternative to the CD that is made mostly out of - wait for it - corn.
Sanyo says its MildDiscs are biodegradable and can also be incinerated with no negative environmental effect. One ear of corn can make 10 discs (and approximately 85 kernels one disc). Though they are already available in limited quantities in Japan, they've not filtered Canadawards yet.
The downside? MildDiscs are sure to cost about three times as much as an average CD. But the good thing, even if it's all about competition, is that one company's efforts toward environmentally sustainable media (Sanyo's hokey but hopeful corporate slogan is "We care for people and the earth") is inspiring others.
Sony and Toppan Printing's Blue-Ray disc, a post-cursor to the DVD that is already available in Japan, can hold five times as much as an average DVD and is approximately 51 per cent paper (according to the Blu-Ray consortium's site, www.blu-ray.com ). The format uses blue laser light (as opposed to the red light used by ordinary DVDs) and looks poised to succeed on the basis of many qualities, particularly its eco-friendliness. The discs can be cut by scissors and hold about half as much information as your average hard drive.
As for the prospects of widespread Blu-Ray adoption, Sony (possibly having learned from the failure of the mini-disc) is working hard to foster a group effort toward the development of the optical disc it hopes will replace VHS and enable the recording of HDTV. It's collaborating with 11 of the largest consumer electronics companies to make this happen.
Consumers have been relatively passive about what they want from their media, and government groups are equally uninvolved.
"The technology is evolving so quickly that government policy always lags behind," says Robert Sinclair of Natural Resources Canada, who cautions that certain supposedly degradable products often do not degrade in our landfills.
Environment Canada did commission a report on information technology and telecommunications waste that was released in 2002. Though it didn't address CDs and DVDs explicitly, it did predict that by 2005 Canadians will throw away approximately 67,324 tonnes of vexingly slow computers and past-their-prime bubble-jet printers.
Even if the next generations of data storage material do biodegrade rapidly, it might be problematic to have such quickly disintegrating storage materials. "This CD will self-destruct in five months" is fine so long as you haven't burned all your photos onto it.
But let's say we've finished watching the episodes we taped of some reality TV show we regretted having gotten sucked into in the first place. How nice it would be to pitch it into the compost, where in time through decay it would one day enrich the soil from whence it came.
Thanks to portable hard drives and music players, we needn't burn as many CDs and DVDs as we once did. But for the information that we do commit to disc, it's nice to know that impending technologies might make our habits a little less planet-hazardous. Quick, somebody tell the laser disc support group.