Earth Day’s Worst Nightmare: The Compact Disc Longbox
In honor of Earth Day, let's return to perhaps the single biggest environmental disaster in music history: the longbox.
When compact discs first moved into broader usage, they were packaged in 6x12-inch paperboard packaging – known as longboxes – so they'd fit into the larger vinyl bins already inside record stores. Placed side by side, the longboxes were the same size as the 12x12 albums that were quickly becoming a relic for music fans.
"We don’t want to do anything that will cause damage to the environment," Los Angeles-based music wholesaler Patricia Moreland said in 1990, "but we don’t see any other way to merchandise." EMI President Sal Licata had already penned a determinedly retrograde op-ed for Billboard in 1989 that praised the packaging's "consumer-appealing presentation" and its "visual stimuli."
The unintended consequences, however, quickly became apparent. If you bought a CD from their inception through 1993, you ripped open a longbox that was twice as large as the product inside and immediately threw the packaging away. One study estimated that the longbox was creating more than 18.5 million pounds of trash each year – the same amount of garbage as the state of Missouri did each day.
Certain earth-conscious artists began to push back against the practice. Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne memorably included a sticker on the longbox for 1992's Uh-Oh that read: "This is garbage. This box, that is. The American record business insists on it though. If you agree that it's wasteful, let your store management know how you feel."
R.E.M. offered its own twist, using the excess packaging for their 1991 album Out of Time to push the so-called Motor Voter Bill. The longbox featured a petition that could be submitted in support of the measure, which would allow people to register to vote when they got a driver’s license. Thousands of petitions flooded Congress, and the bill was eventually signed into law in 1993.
There was room for humor inside the growing debate. Spinal Tap initially included an "extra-longbox" measuring 18 inches for Break Like the Wind, another 1992 release. Their tongue-in-cheek sticker said the box was "an environmentally conscious product which utilises more of our precious recycled resources than any other compact disc package. It’s very shape pays homage to the trees of our planet's noble forests.”
For record stores, however, this was serious business. Owners also claimed that longboxes deterred theft, since they were so unwieldy. "Our retailers are very vehement on the subject," Henry Droz, president of the behemoth WEA (which combined the old Warner Bros., Elektra, and Atlantic labels) said in 1990.
Eventually, even that argument fell to the wayside with the advent of "keepers," clear plastic holders that could only be unlocked at the register. Later, they were replaced by electronic tags. Then there was the extra cost, which had been estimated to be as much as $1 per release. Rykodisc, an upstart independent record company, began offering CDs without the packaging to distributors – at a lower price.
The longbox wasn't long for this world, despite angry counter-arguments from the president of then-powerful Tower Records. Canada stopped using them in 1990; Europe never took up the practice at all. Finally, the Recording Industry Association of America announced that longboxes would be discontinued on April 1, 1993 – just in time for Earth Day, which was held on April 22 that year.
More than two decades later, the controversy seems quaint, the solution a no brainer.
Even so, the longbox – like the vinyl albums that compact discs once replaced – has somehow kept a persistent group of diehard fans. There is (and we're not kidding) a group called the Longbox Society of America, which says it's "dedicated to the documentation and preservation of the longbox." They are widely available as collectors items on eBay, too.