Attack of the Killer Compact Disc

This article was originally published in the “CAPITOL BUSINESS : The Business-Government Connection” section of the Sacramento Union on June 27th, 1991.

On February 28th of this year, Assemblyman Terry Friedman (D, Los Angeles) introduced a bill into the legislature as an urgency statute to take effect at once for the “immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety within the meaning of Article IV of the Constitution”.   The emergency – excessive packaging of compact discs and audio cassettes.  A less than burning issue on the minds of many Californians.

Well, this week brings the passage of the bill, now known as AB 861, from the Assembly to the State Senate.  Having passed the Assembly Natural Resources Committee 9:5, the Ways and Means Committee 17:5, and the Assembly Floor 42:31, the bill provides for a $250 fine if a retailer offers to sell an excessively packaged CD or audio cassette ($500 for second or subsequent offenses by reprobate retailers).  However, reasonably enough, the emergency provisions were stricken and the music industry was allowed a grace period until the end of 1992 to minimize its wasteful ways.

Now, Californians do need to change our wasteful ways.  Our landfills are brimming with everything from refrigerators and old televisions to twinkee wrappers and diapers.  However, legislative zeal can lead us a bit too far into improper regulation and micro-management.  Even the lobby group, Californians Against Waste, who support the bill, admit that it is “somewhat alarmist to suggest that CD packaging is destroying the planet”.  However, the current 6″ x 12″ packaging, which is twice the size of the product, is probably a good example of over-packaging.

Despite the good intentions, though, there are many other examples of waste within our society.  Aren’t cloth diapers better than disposables?  Couldn’t we all use cloth bags at the grocery instead of paper or plastic?  How about cereal boxes that are never filled to the top?  Do twinkees really have to be individually wrapped?  (Of course waste is in the eye of the beholder.)  If one industry has its packaging regulated, shouldn’t all of them be?

These types of business and social problems are best solved in the marketplace by the industry itself.  The Recording Industry Association of America claims that it has many concerns about how their products are packaged, including theft issues, refixturing retailer displays and racks (costing tens of millions of dollars), the ability to see and read labels, as well as retooling the machinery to produce and stuff the packaging.  All very legitimate issues, while not even mentioning marketing questions.  It is hard for non-industry people to completely forecast all of the ramifications in running a particular business when changes are mandated upon the industry.

If you don’t micro-manage legislative change, then how do things change?  Well, you get recording artists and environmentalists together to form a coalition called “Ban the Box” and you encourage consumers to leave the excessive CD packaging at the store as show of support for the proposed changes.  You work in the market place and let consumers express their concerns to business.  Business will listen.  It may take some time, but it’s better than abusing the power of government to run roughshod over individual and free enterprize rights.

In fact, Robert Simonds, President of Rykodisc, an independent recording label, did form “Ban the Box” last year and success has been forthcoming.  On March 26th, Jason Berman, President of the Recording Industry Association of American (RIAA), announced that, “There is unanimity among RIAA member companies that the disposable CD longbox is dead.  A number of environmentally friendly alternatives are under active consideration.  Every one of our manufacturing companies is working swiftly and diligently to explore the manufacturing processes involved, the materials to be used and any fixturing issues.”

It’s nice to see the marketplace work.  It is in the business community’s best interest to be responsive to social needs and requests.

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