By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Sales of audio cassettes are dwindling, but what use is there for the estimated 500 million tapes gathering dust?
Ones we made earlier...
Cassette tapes were once at the cutting edge of personal music collections, offering portability and piracy.
The "mix tape" was a romantic rite of passage in the 1980s. Recording songs from the radio - or from another tape if you splashed out on a double-tape deck - to give to a loved one or a mate was a painstaking business. Fading out the music before the DJ butted in became an art form.
And the sound of loading computer games patiently from tapes to a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 will live long in the memory.
But today the cassette tape has been swept aside by MP3 players, playlists and music libraries. Currys is to stop selling cassettes and, crucially, hi-fi systems which play tapes will also no longer be stocked.
There were 83 million music cassettes sold in 1989, but by 2006 it was down to 100,000, excluding audio books and blank tapes. But an estimated 500 million in the UK are still around, no doubt stuck in boxes in dusty lofts or lost behind the back of sofas. What to do with these relics?
1. FROM TAPE TO DIGITAL
"It's relatively easy to hook them up to a computer to convert the tracks to MP3s," says Tom Dunmore, editor-in-chief of Stuff magazine.
"The sound quality isn't going to be amazing but it never was with tapes. The problem doing that is you will have to enter the artists and track information, which can be very laborious."
This was the future, once
Most PCs have a line input to connect a hi-fi to a computer, he says, and there is cheap or free software available online which allow users to convert into any format.
"As a child of the 80s, it's a sad day," says Mr Dunmore. "There was that mix phenomenon. In the days of playlists and libraries of tens of thousands of songs, the art of the mix tape has gone. Yet it's synonymous with your first relationship and making tapes for girls."
2. RECYCLING BIN
A cassette tape has many parts, including the plastic casing, the inlay card, the recording tape and sometimes steel screws and springs.
Local authorities do not have the capability or infrastructure to break down the tapes, so any sent to the council will end up in landfill.
Specialist firms such as the Recycling People can arrange for audio tapes to be broken down, but they currently charge because the recording tape cannot be recycled - it has to go to landfill and that comes at a cost.
The tape provides the recycling problem
The firm's owner, Roger Dennett, says the plastic casing is what's called "high impact" polystyrene, which is recycled as coat hangers and retail displays. The cardboard is easily recycled and the steel screws can be re-used as scrap.
"The problem is the recording tape, which has no use or value. We are looking at using it as part of a sustainable energy project in the future."
Myles Pilkington, of recycling company Sims Group, says the main problem with recycling is the cost of collecting and moving the tapes to a processing site. "Tapes are mostly plastic, filled with air and are subsequently lightweight and bulky."
The recovery of plastics from CDs and DVDs is more common because this plastic is of a higher value than polystyrene. But he says it may not be too long before there are kerbside plastic recycling bins or "tape banks" where audio cassettes can be deposited.
3. FLOG THEM
Fans of a certain internet auction site often claim you can flog just about anything if the price is right... cassette tapes included. The price, however, is unlikely to have music industry executives clamouring for a share of lost royalties.
Take one current auction, of 14 TDK and Sony cassettes. "Some have missing inlay cards but the tapes themselves are in great condition, they have only been recorded on once," runs the vendor's spiel. Despite a modest starting price of £1, the offer has so far attracted precisely zero bids.
Alternatively, some second-hand record shops still accept cassettes. Proper albums only, though, not mix tapes.
4. PRESS PLAY
For those who still own a cassette player, there's no need to do anything. But it might be wise to start making digital versions before the machine or the tapes start to shuffle off this mortal coil.
A more expensive option than converting the most-cherished mix tapes and albums is to buy the songs online or on CD. That way the sound quality is significantly enhanced.
5. SCARE BIRDS
A tip among gardeners is to stretch the tape between posts to scare birds away.
The whistling wind and the reflecting sunlight apparently startle the birds and keep them away from a vegetable plot.
Given it wouldn't make for the prettiest of sights, perhaps this is one feature the Ground Force team wouldn't recommend.
6. MAKE BELT BUCKLES
Vintage clothing designer Chandra Sweet, based in Seattle in the US, uses blank audio cassettes to accessorise belts which she sells online or at craft fairs.
"I was very surprised at how popular the buckles are," she says. "They sell pretty well, as do the luggage tags, which are made from the J-cards of the cassette.
Yours for 10 bucks
"It's amazing how happy people react to seeing them. When people in their late 20s and early 30s see them, they freak out. I always hear how they had this exact cassette when they were 14. They get a good laugh out of the buckles."
7. MAKE WALLETS
Another designer, Marcella Foschi, breaks cassette tapes and joins them back together using zippers to make a wallet.
Her crafts made their debut at the Tokyo Designboom 2006 Mart.
8. FREE TO GOOD HOME
Let others enjoy the music you no longer listen to. Websites like freecycle.org provide a network of people giving and receiving goods, for free. Or take the tapes to your local charity shop.
9. BUNDLE PAPER
The tape can act as twine to bundle up newspapers - and it's reusable. It could also be used as ribbon when gift-wrapping - strangely apt, if the parcel contains an MP3 player. Who knows, it may even go curly when scraped with scissors, just like bought gift-wrap ribbon.
10. CHILD'S TOY
Children seem to magically acquire an extra dexterity in their fingers to be able to pull the tape out of cassettes.
This might have been a trauma for parents 20 years ago, when toddlers destroyed their favourite mix tape or the latest chart countdown. But now they can keep a watchful eye as their little darling remains amused for hours.
A selection of your comments appears below.
My friend's 16 year old son is a hip and happening young chap with his own style and swagger. His trademark is a cassette tape worn on a cord around his neck as a pendant. He was demonstrating his achingly hip and slightly arch sense of humour on Sunday - the tape was a copy of Madonna's first album.
Jez, Banstead, Surrey
We use the flimsy tape as "tell-tales" in sailing races. Attach the tape to the stays on both sides of the jib and you can judge the wind accurately. Using this method we (the only European boat) beat the rest of the fleet (USA) in a regatta a few years ago. Fantastique!
Darren Fowler, London
I saw someone wearing one as jewellery - like a giant pendant - at the weekend. I thought it looked pretty cool in a retro kind of way.
The magnetic tape inside is the most useful part! You can knit with it and it makes a fairly waterproof, flexible, funky fabric that works well for bags, hats and mackintoshes for toddlers (seriously!) Only trouble is, the only colour it comes in is brown......
How about attaching lengths of the tape to a hat and making a wig for parties?
Place a thin layer of cement on the ground and place the cassettes in that and make a very attractive and hard wearing footpath. Any light, sunshine, moonshine or artificial light reflects well on them and makes the pathway a safe way to walk.
Roger Hooton, Nuriootpa, South Australia
A few years ago I put all of my old tapes in a black bin bag outside my flat with a sign attached to it saying 'Dead media format, please help yourself' The entire bag disappeared within an hour - so obviously not as dead as I thought. Hope they're still giving somebody the same pleasure it gave me putting the mixes together. I know a couple of friends who still play mix tapes I gave them fifteen years ago. Technology never dies, it just finds new outlets.
Cassette tapes are alive and well in Thailand. I find it surprising that many new cars still come with a built-in cassette player, such is the continued popularity of the medium. Tapes are very cheap and many artists issue music on cassette. For many here, CDs can still be too expensive. And taxi drivers are all too keen to belt out traditional Thai tunes and fumble around when it's time to change the tape. "Leave the tape in the machine and keep your eyes on the road", I always say to myself.
Kev, Bangkok, Thailand
Sod progress! I have 33rpm records, tapes and CD's The music is still wonderful and don't tell me why, but putting a record on a deck and pressing the 'play' button is fun - even getting up and down to turn it over offers the opportunity to appreciate the technology of the time
While tape may be dead as a format it still features relatively good sound quality. On some decks made by legendary Japanese firm Nakamichi near CD quality sound be achieved surpassing the new age formats but lousy format like WMA and MP3. Auction sites are selling 5 packs of high grade Metal tapes for as much as £120 a box, that works out at an incredible £24 a blank tape. Such is the demand by tape connoisseurs to get a quality blank from the likes of TDK or SONY. Tape still rocks, my deck makes far better music than an i-Pod and it's a mystical art setting up a deck so it sounds just right.
James Skeels, Sawbridgeworth
We're seeing the trough of their value; not old enough to be collector's items, too old to have "new" value... Just think, in 100-200 years time, when collectors are clamouring for surviving, original tapes of certain types of music, how much intact tapes would be worth!
Matt, North Wales
Does this mean that car manufacturers will FINALLY stop selling new cars with tape decks as bog-standard and finally join the rest of the population in the 21st century and fit, at least, CD players on all levels of car trim for no extra cost?!
Rich Ellis, Swindon, UK
I've just re-discovered the joy of cassettes, thanks to my local Oxfam sellng loads at a mere 50p each. It has brought back happy memories of the 80s and I intend to buy even more. The problem is - I can't play them on anything, but they look good. Next stop, eight track...
Old tapes would be worth far more piled up and called 'Art'!
Nigel Macarthur, London, England
Toddlers alone with a couple of hundred yards of unbreakable strangulating cassette tape? I don't think so. Use it to tie teenagers to their homework desks instead.
Samantha David, France