10/23/2009 06:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Life Cycle: The Birth and Death of Your Bootleg DVDs

Life Cycle is a series of posts that looks at the environmental impacts of everyday things.


Oh baby, it's been quite a day. You did your time in your cube, got in a little vinyasa, grabbed some take-out , and are ready to hunker down with your honey for a little evening entertainment. Whether it's Titanic from Netflix or bootleg Harry Potter from Canal Street, your cinematic experience leaves its mark not only on your heart (which will go on), but on the planet.

DVDs were introduced in the United States back in 1997 after an ongoing battle between film companies that didn't want their works duplicated, consumers who did, and manufacturers that were down for both but had to keep costs low. Because DVDs were (and are) scanned by low-power laser beams, the shiny little discs were touted as the indestructible, portable panacea to bulky, low-grade VHS tapes that would never get demagnetized or break down.

What advertisers forgot to mention (which explains why those marketing ploys have disappeared) is that durability is determined by air pollution and dust exposure. The discs themselves are pretty indestructible (they have a 30-100 year life span), but the information that lives on them can be corrupted and rendered useless within seconds. Useless DVDs, of course, end up in landfills.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Your DVD was birthed in sterility. Think super-clean rooms and Hazmat suits. Why? An average speck of dust is 100 times larger than the physical pits and lands on a DVD. At this stage, dust particles are to DVDs as Voldemort is to good little wizards.

The disc is a triple-layer pancake with a base of molten clear polycarbonate plastic, which is poured into a metal mold (cast from a glass original). This plastic is the same #7 plastic that's used in some reusable water bottles and contains bisphenol-A (BPA). Canada has banned it because of concerns about endocrine disruption but the FDA seems to think it's okay for Americans. You be the judge.

So the center hole gets punched out, and the disc is examined for dust, warps and bubbles. If it's in good shape, it's coated with an extremely thin layer of aluminum, silver or gold, through a vacuum coating process that applies even layers, atom by atom. The disc is enrobed in acrylic lacquer to protect it from scratches, the label is silk-screened on, and the disc is ready to be packaged and work its way to you-- packaged in more petroleum-based plastic and paper that likely comes from virgin trees (like we detailed in our newspaper post.)

The manufacturing process is short, but the list of materials used is long. Glass, aluminum, gold, plastic in multiple forms, dyes, water, paper, nickel, silver. . .Most of these things were buried deep in the ground until we mined, chopped and drilled them out.

Here's what you can do to have your movie and watch it too:

1. Reconsider the need for a DVD library. 41% of the money spent on movies and video entertainment goes toward DVD purchase. Film companies want you to buy these flicks. They rely on these sales as a lucrative part of their revenue streams and will tempt you with bonus features such as never before-seen footage and incredible alternate endings. Resist.

2. Instead, look into streaming videos online, which currently makes up about .05% of movie sales. (Yes, there's energy consumption to consider, but the old method involved a DVD player and a TV.)

3. When sticking with discs, rent your film from your local public or video library. As for Netflix, it has a considerable carbon footprint because of shipping, but the movies get screened again and again and rely on regional distribution. So this is still a better choice than buying your own copy of Roadhouse 2.

4. Recycle your jewel cases and DVDs. At the last American Chemical Society conference back in April, scientists presented findings on removing carbon dioxide from coal-plant smokestacks and using the CO2 as an input for DVDs and other polycarbonate plastics.

Note: The same concerns apply to music CDs, of course. Try to keep your Rihanna and MIA nice and digital.

Next up: Grab the salt and pass the popcorn.

This post was written by Simran Sethi and Sarah Smarsh. Thanks to the University of Kansas School of Journalism, Merete Mueller and Lacey Johnston for research assistance and hopkindsii for the image.