Fun with AOL Coasters 

After the apocalypse, only cockroaches, Cher, and free AOL CDs will remain.

When the apocalypse comes, cockroaches will, of course, rise to become the master race.

However, ruling the world will take a few minor adjustments in their routines. For example, their little legs won't be long enough to reach the gas pedals on all those abandoned vehicles. Transportation will indeed be a problem, but they will solve that in a few ways. First, by water, they will develop vast husbandry programs to bridle the carp that also have managed to survive.

By land, the roaches will harness plastic discs using only the wind and the slick, smooth surface afforded by all those 4,356 minutes free! AOL CDs that litter the earth.

Then, unable to figure out how to use a can opener, the roaches will eventually die out, giving rise to the reign of all those 4,356 minutes free! AOL CDs that litter the earth. It will take about a hundred years, but when the first neutrinos have managed to zip through the eternal blackness that has surrounded our planet and mix with the low-oxygen, highly radioactive atmosphere, these CDs will spring to life amid a chorus of "You've got mail!" and showers of emoticons pouring out of their middles.

At least that's the story the environmentalists tell. There seems to be some fear of a future planet where we are all slip-sliding around on unwanted or unusable discs that have overflowed the landfills and clogged city municipalities. Abandoned music CDs -- especially prerelease press copies (whoops!) -- are part of the problem, but AOL is undoubtedly the biggest offender.

But surely there are other, more wasteful things in the world -- such as Lunchables containers, plastic shower caps, and Ryan Seacrest?

The answer, actually, after careful and pained research, is "no." There really isn't anything more wasteful than those goddamned "join AOL" CDs that we all get in the mail. They are completely useless to 95 percent of the people who get them, which is 95 percent of people who have mailing addresses. They are also, for all intents and purposes, unrecyclable. So AOL is sending out millions (though they won't say exactly how many millions) of pieces of plastic and aluminum that will go directly into the garbage, joining, once you're old enough to know better, your Bush CD collection.

AOL claims to be happy with its campaign, which provides a 5 percent return, more than double the usual 2 percent businesses hope to achieve from direct mail. What's more, the company claims people seem to like getting them, and goshdarnit, AOL really hasn't had many complaints and ain't sure what all the fuss is about.

Perhaps they are about to find out. Berkeley Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, with the help of Californians Against Waste, has drafted legislation that would force AOL to bear the brunt of dealing with the waste it has created. If the bill passes, the company will be required to provide a postage-paid mailer with each CD so that folks who receive the little gift can send it back to its maker at the cost of AOL's parent company, Time Warner.

So, does this have a chance in hell of passing? "Oh, I think it does," says an optimistic Hancock. "It's interesting to me how many people stop me in the hall to talk about it. People really hate getting those CDs, a bright shiny new object that has obviously had a lot of thought put into it, and they know they aren't going to use it; they can't think of anything to do with it except throw it in the trash."

The problem is, the trash doesn't want it. California is in a landfill crisis -- there's not enough space for all of our junk. Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, localizes the argument against AOL: "If somebody took a bag of trash, dumped it on your lawn, and wanted you to take care of it, you'd be pissed off," he says. AOL has, in essence, collectively dumped its trash in our mailboxes for years, and is making the municipalities deal with its inevitable disposal.

Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center in Berkeley, concurs: "The idea is that the manufacturer should be responsible for the lifecycle of the product." Television manufacturers already do this, tacking on the cost of a set's environmentally sound removal to the price. It's absorbed by the consumer, says Bourque, "but it does create a fund to deal with the waste that they are producing." Now people want AOL to do the same.

Two people like James McKenna and John Lieberman. These East Bay IT professionals began collecting AOL CDs three years ago, and recently dumped sixty thousand of them on the Capitol steps in Sacramento to support Hancock's bill. Eventually they want to dump one million of them on the steps of the AOL headquarters in Virginia. "You've got mail!" Lieberman fantasizes he'll say with a sly grin. They have already collected 300,000, most of which are residing in big tubs in his El Cerrito backyard. "Hey, we know this isn't the world's most pressing issue," Lieberman says. "This isn't 'civil rights.' But AOL needs to be accountable for its actions."

Planet Clair has an even better idea. It took these guys three years to collect 300,000 wasteful, good-for-nothing AOL CDs, and Janet Jackson one week to sell as many copies of her new CD. Kid Rock has gone eleven times platinum, which is eleven million copies of the song "Cowboy" out there. Garth Brooks has sold 100 million discs alone. You get where I'm going with this? How long before a crappy mainstream CD sinks to the artistic level of an AOL ad, and a couple pissed-off El Cerritans start collecting Janet's Damita Jo and fantasizing about dumping hundreds of thousands of copies on Ms. Jackson's front lawn?

Disney now has plans to release EZ-Ds, DVDs that will disintegrate after 48 hours of being played. That is, the encoding within will disintegrate. The CD itself will take about 450 years to disappear. Popular music, of course, is way ahead of the curve here -- for your average bandwagon act these days, life goes on long after the thrill of livin' is gone. After the apocalypse, only cockroaches, Cher, and free AOL CDs will remain.

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