VHS and audiocassette tapes are classic examples of dead technology. We’re sure you have a box of these things somewhere, waiting to be dealt with. Can you even recycle VHS tapes and cassettes? Sadly, this is a classic example of a technology designed with no consideration for the end of its life. In fact, next to Styrofoam, VHS tape might be the most difficult household item to recycle. They’re not cost-effective; the value of getting anything useful out of them is below the cost in person-hours required to break them down.
A big part of the problem is the outside plastic shell of VHS and cassette tapes, which won’t biodegrade in our lifetime. They might sit in a landfill for a thousand years (give or take). And just because all the parts are made of plastic doesn’t mean that you can throw this item in the recycling bin. The inner tape is coated with toxic metals like chromium. If it sits in the landfill for too long, these toxic metals will seep into the ground.
So why is this dead technology still taking up shelf or closet space in our lives?
What does VHS stand for?
VHS stands for “video home system.” The technology was developed by Victor Company of Japan (JVC) in the early 1970s. VHS was commercially released in Japan on September 9, 1976 and in the United States on August 23, 1977. However, as early as the 1950s, magnetic tapes were already being used in the television industry, which required a much faster production cycle than the movie industry’s slower pace of working with film stock. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the two popular videotape formats were VHS and Betamax. Betamax, Sony Corporation’s competing format, was released in Japan on May 10, 1975. “Beta,” although superior in many ways, was also more expensive, and VHS ultimately won the market.
How many VHS tapes are out there?
Nobody knows how many VHS cassettes are still sitting around in homes and offices globally. But according to Wikipedia, by 2005, there were still 94.5 million Americans who had VHS format tapes at home. It’s a good guess that there are still millions of these things out there. Similarly, there are still millions of audiocassette tapes taking up space in homes and businesses. (You probably have a stash of these things as well!)
What are VHS tapes made from?
The outside case of a VHS tape is made from #5 plastic (polypropylene), which will take centuries to biodegrade (via microorganisms) or photodegrade (via sunlight). The tape inside is made from Mylar (polyethylene terephthalate), a #1 plastic that’s coated with chromium, iron oxide, and other metals. This coated Mylar is actually considered hazardous waste. Waste material classified as hazardous is challenging to recycle because it can’t legally go to landfill, where its toxic components will seep into the ground or vent into the atmosphere.
How about computer data tape?
We’re including computer data tape in this discussion of VCR tapes because it has the same disposal issues. For decades, computer data tapes were widely used to back up data on mainframe and minicomputers used by businesses, institutions, government, and military. Millions of these tapes share the characteristics of any VHS tape, also having a much larger capacity. With each technology advance, they were able to store more data. A critical problem with disposal is that the data stored on these tapes is often highly sensitive. Whether it’s backup data from a hospital, a bank, or a loan company, it’s confidential information about people and businesses. That’s why computer data tapes must be recycled with great care to avoid identity theft and security breaches.
Are my old VHS tapes and audiocassettes worth money?
Depending on the content and condition of your old video and audiotapes, they might be worth something to somebody. People collect all kinds of things. You can always try selling your classic tapes online to the highest bidder. We’ve seen some go for as much as $9,000! You can also bring the buyers to you with a yard sale or Craigslist ad. And while the stores that used to sell and rent videos are mostly out of business, you can still find music stores that might be interested in trading your old VHS tapes and audiocassettes for cash. Finally, while this may sound far-fetched, there are still a few people in the world who love tape as a recording medium, and they might be interested in your collection as raw materials to erase and reuse.
Reusing VHS and Cassette Tapes
If reselling or recycling aren’t options, you can always find alternative uses for your VHS tapes and audiocassettes. Why not get crafty and repurpose them in fun and exciting ways? For instance, you can never go wrong with cassette coasters, VHS table stands, and cassette tape bracelets.
How does incinerating tapes affect the environment?
Are you thinking about destroying your own VHS, data, and cassette tapes? Don’t do it! Considering the available options for recycling these media from an environmental and data security perspective, we at GreenCitizen believe that waste-to-energy incineration is the best solution for minimizing environmental impact, reducing landfill, and avoiding global dumping.
Based on the information available at Covanta, GreenCitizen’s energy-to-waste incineration partner, Energy-from-Waste (EfW) is widely recognized as a technology that can help mitigate climate change. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), every ton of municipal solid waste processed at an EfW facility prevents the release of approximately one ton of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions into the atmosphere by avoiding methane generation at landfills, offsetting greenhouse gases from fossil fuel electrical production, and recovering metals.
Landfills are the largest source of human-made methane. Methane has been found to be over 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
If we apply the waste-to-energy (WtE) model globally, there’s a potential to save 3.7 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases as CO2 each year. That’s equivalent to installing two million one-megawatt wind turbines or doubling nuclear power plant capacity. Here in the United States, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to closing more than 60 large coal-fired power plants.
How can I save my content from VHS tapes, data, and cassette tapes?
These obsolete technologies used to be the go-to method for storing precious memories or data that might be needed in the future. Before recycling and destroying these tapes, you should save that irreplaceable content by converting your VHS to digital format.
Here are some VHS-to-digital converters that can do the job:
To preserve your archived audio, here are some cassette-to-MP3 products to help you with the task:
OK, I’m ready! How do I recycle those old VHS tapes?
For locations of VHS and cassette tape recyclers, please consult earth911.com, a nationwide search engine for recycling centers. Hit the “Where To Recycle” tab in the top nav bar and then enter “VHS”, “Video Tapes”, or “VHS cassettes” and your zip code. You’ll get a list of the nearest drop-off locations that will accept VHS tapes. Earth911.com can also find you recycling centers for many other household items.
Where to recycle VHS and cassette tapes in San Francisco
These locations can help you with VHS tape recycling:
Community Thrift Store
623 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
St. Anthony’s Foundation
101 8th St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
Marian Residence for Women (St. Anthony’s Foundation)
1171 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
1065 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Golden Gate Disposal & Recycling
7th St. & Berry St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
250 Executive Park Blvd.
San Francisco, CA 94134
Recycle your VHS tapes and audiocassettes with GreenCitizen!
Anyone in San Francisco or the surrounding area can drop off their VHS and cassette tapes at GreenCitizen’s Burlingame Recycling Center/EcoCenter. You can also include data tapes or VHS tapes in your business electronic recycling pickup request. Because it’s costly to recycle and destruct tapes, GreenCitizen charges a small recycling fee. Our fees are listed on the Recycling center page and the business pickup request page.
Since it’s cost-prohibitive to manually separate the magnetic tape from its plastic housing, GreenCitizen will track each tape and issue a certificate of destruction. It’s also a bad idea to send the tapes to landfill, so we physically destruct the tape with our hard disk and tape destruction machine. We then send the tapes to Covanta, our energy-to-waste incineration partner in California’s Central Valley, to have it incinerated. This is the safest way to ensure that all confidential data are destroyed and all metals are reclaimed. It’s also the most environmentally responsible way to recycle tapes.
Thank you for doing your part to recycle VHS and cassette tapes. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us!