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Why We Don't Recycle VHS Tapes

It's really hard, and we might lose rare films.

by Jordan Pearson
Mar 18 2015, 10:00am

Image: Flickr/Ludo

Once upon a time, VHS tapes ruled the world. Now we're struggling to figure out what to do with them as the chunky boxes of plastic sit around in basements and closets, gathering dust and degrading, the information stored on their magnetic stripes slowly escaping its bonds.

GenesisXD, a Toronto-based startup, is facing this dilemma head-on. The company is planning to hire people with barriers to employment to dismantle old tapes and then sell the resulting plastic for reuse. The program, called Project Get Reel, is currently raising funds and has secured a space in a Toronto community center to carry out operations.

Such services are needed because recycling VHS tapes is out of the question for most people. Many municipalities, like Toronto and New York City, won't even try to recycle them because they need to be dismantled by hand first, and so they end up in landfills. But here's the rub: If we do find a way to recycle all the unused tapes laying around, we risk destroying valuable cultural artifacts like the many B-films never released on DVD in the process.

Michael Mann's absurd '80s Nazi-fantasy-monster flick The Keep, for example, has only ever been released in a physical format on VHS and Laserdisc. You can stream it, but its most accessible physical format remains VHS. If those tapes are lost, we'll just have to hope that Netflix's servers don't crash and that the master tape still exists in a studio vault.

"There's so much that we could potentially lose without even realizing it"

But Get Reel has faced criticism from concerned collectors worried about losing important films, according to Philip Yan, GenesisXD's founder.

"We've been very busy talking to this group of people, some of them not even in Canada," said Yan. "I got a lot of responses from all over the world from these kinds of people, from the US and so on. The information is helping us, and we're looking for a proper organization for archives that's an authority on this aspect in the local area so we can collaborate."

That Yan received comments from around the globe is an indication that the VHS preservation movement is in full swing. At Yale University, for example, thousands of horror and exploitation films on VHS recently made it into the Sterling Memorial Library's collection to be saved for posterity.

Josh Johnson, a Texas-based filmmaker who made a 2013 documentary on VHS tape collectors called Rewind This!, said that programs like Yan's are necessary, since there really is no way to responsibly dispose of VHS tapes. He agreed that there need to be safeguards in place to make sure that rare films aren't lost.

"I'm very concerned with the fact that there doesn't seem to be any part of initiative that doesn't seem to be taking into account what content is on the tapes," said Johnson. "What should be added into this process, in my opinion, is a method for identifying what is being recycled before that recycling happens. There's so much that we could potentially lose without even realizing it if that aspect isn't incorporated into this plan."

But why all the fuss in the first place? Isn't VHS an old and, by all accounts, inferior format to the kinds of digital options we have today? Doesn't the Millenium Falcon ripping through space look much crisper on Blu-Ray than on tape?

"We still have to do something with these excess VHS tapes"

According to Kim Tomczak, Canadian new media artist and founder of Toronto tape distributor and archive VTape, VHS is a valued medium for more reasons than mere nostalgia.

"There are aesthetic reasons to use VHS, and some people like the look of it—just like how some people love the sound of vinyl," Tomczak said. "Media is funny; it's accumulative, and one thing doesn't really, truly replace another. The typewriter never replaced handwriting. I think there is an argument that people want to continue using VHS and showing VHS, and now it's kind of cool again. But we still have to do something with these excess VHS tapes, and if [GenesisXD] can do it, there's got to be some good in that."

Perhaps, with the proper safeguards in place, recycling your old VHS tapes won't mean accidentally destroying a filmic unicorn in the process. Before that, however, we need to figure out a viable method of recycling them in the first place.

Whatever you do with your tapes in the mean time, don't just chuck them in the trash—call up a pizza and enjoy the fuzzy warmth of a VHS classic instead.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Genesis XD founder Philip Yan's surname. This mistake has been corrected.