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What to do With Your VHS Tapes: Nitty-gritty

Carrie Adams

By Carrie Adams

If I want to get rid of old VHS tapes in my house without trashing them, what can I do? Is it really that bad to throw them away in the first place?

Shilpa Sarkar, ’11, from Stanford, Calif.
Upcycling With Obsolete Technology

Everyone knows about recycling, where old things like papers, bottles and cans get broken down into their base materials and used to manufacture something new. But upcycling can be even better for the environment—that’s where you take the old thing as you find it, and build something new without stopping to melt, mulch or pulp it down into a raw material first.

Whether you’re a committed crafter or not, the website has some brilliant ideas for using old tapes. But before I started working with my collection of 50 VHS tapes, I wanted to know more about my source material.

I got out a screwdriver and uncovered an arrangement of odd, colorful plastic pieces.  I stored them in a tin box, planning to make some crazy jewelry later. The spools holding the tape have intricate grooves in their clear, shiny plastic, and they deserved to see the light of day. I found a small wooden board in my hallway’s “free store”—a closet of unwanted stuff—that contrasted strikingly with the retro-futuristic internal organs of the obsolete technology. A few more screws and a glue gun later, and I had a functional work of art displaying necklaces on my dresser.

I was ready now for my real project: a table. From years of crafting, I have learned to remain flexible and open-minded. I quickly realized that the first design I imagined defied the laws of physics. After a half hour of stacking and knocking down tapes, though, I found a design that was not only sturdy, but also left plenty of leg room under the table. Crafting is about more than just using up old stuff and making something new, though: it can also be a cheap, calorie-free bonding activity. My godmother, Mary, is an artist and a pre-school teacher, and we reminisced about past projects together—stilts, a go-cart, bird feeders—as she helped me assemble my VHS table. Every project takes longer than you predict, but working with a partner or listening to music helps the time whiz by.

The upcycle movement is fun and saves money, but does it have a significant impact on the environment? The more trash we reuse, the less that ends up in our landfills. When a VHS tape enters a landfill, it is packed into a “dry tomb,” lined with clay and plastic and covered by soil and plastic to prevent water from entering the landfill, picking up contaminants, and leaking out as a toxic liquid called leachate. Keeping the trash dry prevents leachate and gas from forming, but the EPA admits that liners break down over time. By keeping potentially toxic materials out of the landfills longer, we delay gas and leachate formation, postponing the toxic potential of landfills into future decades and centuries, even though owners are required to monitor and clean their landfills for just 30 years.

Dr. Fred Lee, a retired professor and head of an environmental consulting firm, conveyed his frustration about lax landfill regulations to me during an interview. The problem, he said, is that no one wants to pay to make sure that landfills are truly safe. “Politicians, county boards, USEPA and state regulatory agencies don’t want to face the opposition that the public would generate if you told everyone ‘you gotta triple your garbage bill.’ ” Costs are kept down for the mostly urban waste generators by imposing landfills on rural populations, who have little financial or political power to mount opposition. When you recycle instead of landfill, you’re also helping to correct an environmental injustice.

On the other side of the equation, by making my table out of VHS tapes, I avoided using virgin materials. I probably would have bought a table from Ikea, made of particleboard and fiberboard. These products consist almost entirely of recycled timber or timber waste, which is good. But they also contain toxic formaldehyde, which, unlike the chromium in magnetic tape, leaches into the air we breathe. By upcycling VHS tapes into a table, I reduced the use of paper, toxic chemicals, and wood. I reduced landfill pollution, and just as important, I had fun! And now all the hipsters I live with think I’m really cool, too. (They don’t need to know my table isn’t ironic.)

CARRIE ADAMS, ’12, is an earth systems major.

Comments (1)

  • Mr. Quentin Prideaux

    I'm going to use old VHS tapes to make a storage rack for my DVDs.  Not *that's* ironic.  Thanks for the ideas and the research!

    Posted by Mr. Quentin Prideaux on Dec 9, 2011 10:39 AM


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