What's with the CD longbox? -- We look into the wasteful packaging of CDs

In honor of Earth Day on April 22, how about a clean thought: The music industry could eliminate more than 18.5 million pounds of trash each year if it only would change the way it packages compact discs. That is, roughly, the same amount of garbage created daily by a population the size of Missouri’s.

Right now, nearly every compact disc sold in this country comes in a 6-by-12-inch package. Most often this is a cardboard container called a longbox, which is about twice as big as the CD it holds; in some cases the oversize package is a hard-to-open plastic contrivance called a blister pack. Each 6-by-12-inch CD package creates about 1.5 ounces of waste while providing nothing of use to the music consumer. With very few exceptions, these containers go straight to wastebaskets. Last year that happened about 200 million times.

Since April 1, when Canada stopped using longboxes, Americans have been the only people in the world who have to pollute for their music. The United States is unlikely to follow Canada’s lead in the near future. None of the major forces in the American retail market for music, the world’s largest, want to bear the costs of changing the way CDs are sold.

The music industry sees longbox and blister pack waste as the unfortunate ecological cost of doing business. ”We don’t want to do anything that will cause damage to the environment, but we don’t see any other way to merchandise,” says Patricia Moreland, president of City One Stop, a Los Angeles wholesaling business that sells music to independent retailers.

Disposable packaging even places a financial burden on the music consumer. Longboxes cost 20 to 50 cents at the manufacturing level and, after markups by wholesalers and retailers, add as much as $1 to the price of each compact disc. The extra cost also applies to those few retailers that sell CDs in their unwrapped, hard plastic containers, known as jewel boxes. Until recently, no record company distributed compact discs without longboxes or blister packs. If a store wanted to sell CDs in jewel boxes only, it had to pay for the 6-by-12-inch packaging, then rip it open and throw it away.

In January, one American record label dared to be different. Rykodisc, a 6-year-old independent company, started selling CDs without longbox packaging to distributors at a lower price. That won’t make much of a dent in CD-related waste, however, since Rykodisc is a small label that has only begun to receive widespread attention because of its David Bowie reissues. And Rykodisc’s customers still can order compact discs in disposable packaging.

Other record companies probably won’t emulate Rykodisc. Stores simply are unwilling to accept CDs without 6-by-12-inch packaging, and record labels are unwilling to challenge them. ”Our retailers are very vehement on the subject,” says Henry Droz, president of WEA Corp., the No. 1 prerecorded-music distributor in the country.

Retailers cling to longboxes because they’re seen as the best way to sell a smaller-size format of music in the same old store. First, there is the shelving problem. Without longboxes, compact discs get lost in displays created for 12-by-12-inch albums. With the 6-by-12-inch packaging, a retailer can fit two CDs side by side in existing shelves. Of course, stores could be remodeled for CDs, but retailers are afraid that some other technology — laserdiscs, digital audio tape — might supplant the compact disc.

The CD’s smaller size also creates a greater security problem. The compact disc in its shiny, 5-by-51/2-inch jewel box can be stashed easily in a thief’s pocket. There is no single security system that works in all kinds of stores. The 6-by-12-inch package is seen by many as a feeble way to slow shoplifting, but it’s the best compromise for varied retail situations. It’s equally as effective for the music section of a department store as for a full-service record store.

Some people in the music industry want retailers to shelve CDs in reusable 6-by-12-inch plastic frames, or keepers, similar to the devices used in many stores for cassettes, the best-selling music format by far. But retailers don’t want to foot the bill for keepers, and some don’t want the hassle of taking the frames off at the cash register.