While the VHS vs. Beta war may be long over, the war against keeping all those movie cassettes out of the world’s landfills has only just begun.
Until just a few weeks ago, when my wife and I went on our bi-annual Value Village run, in atonement for consumerist whims, there were only a few old VHS movie cassettes still left in the apartment, all collecting dust on the bookshelf as if they were keepsakes for a future time capsule. I don’t even remember which films they were, but I’m sure that even if I did have a VHS player, these films, whatever they were, would be chalked full of blips and drags, static and pops.
Analog dies a slow deteriorating death. It gets brittle. It’s fragile. Many films have been lost to the world of tape; old reel prints of movie classics unable to be preserved for posterity. According to the U.S Library of Congress, just 14 per cent of the 11,000 silent films made between 1912 and 1930 still exist in their original format.
Project Get Reel
The tapes themselves, unsurprisingly, are not too kind to the environment either. Within the plastic shell, the inner tape is made of a phthalate-laden form of plastic, which like Kleenex, is often referred to by the brand nameMylar, which is coated with toxic metals like chromium to help convey the tape’s magnetic signal.
Of course movie cassettes are an outdated, essentially obsolete technology in the eyes of North American consumer culture, but we still have so much of it kicking around. Those gazillions of movies from North America’s Blockbuster video shops alone. All those DVD shops down the street, now shuttered. Imagine, where did all those old tapes go? More dusty bookshelves?
Or worse: Landfilled.
A new Toronto organization called Project Get Reel estimates that there are 2.26 billion VHS cassettes overwhelming Ontario’s nooks and crannies alone. That’s a lot of crannies. On March 9, Get Reel launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo with the hope of raising $25,000 in start up funds to get the project off the ground.
Co-founded by Amy Cheung, David Neilson, Graham Lewis and Philip Yan, as social entrepreneurs called GenesisXD, the gang has also decided to involve a social benefit component to its projects. For Get Reel, that means hiring people with barriers to employment, such as new immigrants, single parents and people struggling with mental health issues. Get Reel is connected with the Learning Enrichment Foundation (LEF), a social enrichment centre where people can access a variety of resources, such as English language training, employment services and childcare.
Get Reel estimates that about 80 per cent of VHS tape component scan be recycled. But there is no easy way to automate the breakdown process and separate the recyclable and non-recyclable material, mostly because all brands of VHS tapes are made differently. To get the job done, Get Reel is hiring individuals to dismantle the cassette tapes.
Project Get Reel even shows you how to dismantle VHS tapes for safer disposal, or recycling, if at all possible.
Get Reel works with a local plastics recycler to identify various types of plastics to separate for recycling. The project will generate at least six distinct plastics (HiPS, PS, PVC, ABS, polycarbonate and PP). The recycler provides Get Reel with a pricing structure for the plastics in both raw form and granulated form.
While typically, municipalities have no program for recycling VHS tapes, the tapes still have some use to people who can’t afford a new Blu-Ray system, and would be ear-to-ear happy to watch your ratty old copy of Caddyshack (as long as you didn’t record it in EP mode straight from the TV!)
There aren’t just VHS and Beta tapes out there either. All those Super 8 tapes they shot in the sixties, the 8mm tapes from the eighties. Plus a tonne of less successful formats. And these are just the movie cassettes. Abandoned audio cassettes more than likely have left an even larger ecological footprint.
VHS tapes can be cool for arts and crafts too. Prominent eco-outfit TerraCycle uses old VHS tapes as visual and physical separators to divide cubicles in its Toronto office. They’re piled high as a kind of hipster privacy fence. So that’s it for VHS tapes today. Maybe in a decade, we can get on to recovery plans for “compact discs”, or CDs. Whatever those are.