This DVD Will Self-Destruct

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You've heard of disposable dishes, cameras and even video cameras. But what about disposable DVDs?

No-return DVD rentals that essentially self-destruct within 48 hours after they are removed from their packaging are now rolling out at airports, travel centers and every Staples store across the country. Each location will offer about 25 new movie releases and, rather than return them, consumers can recycle them for free when they're done watching or just throw them out.

The DVDs, which were created by the Georgia-based company Flexplay Entertainment, look like regular discs, but they are made with a special glue that is sensitive to oxygen. Once the disc is exposed to air, a chemical reaction causes the glue to darken so the laser in the DVD player can no longer read the disc. Sealed discs can last for about one year. "It's like DVD on demand," says Joe Fuller, Flexplay's executive vice president of marketing. "You can get Flexplay at the store today, but your rental period doesn't actually start until you've opened the sealed package."

The company hopes these DVDs will appeal to business travelers who don't usually rent movies because their busy schedules make it hard to find time to return them. In addition to Staples, which has never offered movie rentals before, the discs will be for sale at Flexplay's own Web site, Travel Centers of America, Love's and at about 200 Hudson Group–owned newsstands at airports and travel hubs. "You can pick up a couple of movies and put it in your briefcase," Fuller says. "And the next time you are stuck at an airport, you can pop it in your DVD player or computer and you can enjoy a movie."

This is not Flexplay's first foray into the market. In 2003, Flexplay partnered with Disney's Buena Vista Home Entertainment and tested out their invention, then dubbed EZ-D, in chains like Papa John's, Walgreens and 7-Eleven. The pilot, however, lasted only a year, and both companies met with resistance from environmental groups that felt the product was wasteful. This time around, Fuller says the company is making it easier to recycle. As before, customers can still go onto Flexplay's Web site and download a free shipping label to mail the disc back. Flexplay is also partnering with GreenDisc, a company that recycles technotrash, to place recycling bins for the DVDs in most of the retail locations. Any materials that are recycled will be used to make DVD display cases at retail shops. Fuller notes the discs will now be offered at a lower cost (roughly $4.99) and the titles will no longer just be limited to movies from one studio. So far, Paramount, Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema and Starz have entered licensing agreements with Flexplay.

But some environmentalists still have their doubts about the viability of a disposable DVD. At a time when the country is focused more than ever on curbing global warming, environmentalists question whether most studios will support Flexplay. "From our perspective, nothing has changed in terms of the wastefulness of this," says Mark Murray, the executive director of Californians Against Waste, whose group opposed the product last time. "It's just the message this is sending — that we should produce hard products, permanent products, products that are not going to break down in the natural environmental whose useful life instead of being measured in years is now literally being measured in hours."

Although Flexplay does not consider Blockbuster or Netflix to be major competitors, there is still the question of whether a disposable disc for $4.99 can compete in the market. Redbox's kiosks, which dispense new-release films at supermarkets around the country for about $1 a day, appear to be growing in popularity. Other potential competitors include Web sites that allow viewers to download movies right onto their computers — a service that may be of interest particularly to travelers.

Steve Swasey, the vice president of corporate communications for Netflix, said he had not heard of Flexplay's latest launch, but he agreed their product does not seem to be a "direct competitor" to his company. "The whole thing with Netflix is convenience, selection and value," Swasey says, noting that Netflix already has a subscription base of customers who enjoy unlimited DVDs and a wide selection. While Flexplay offers only the newest films, Swasey notes that the bulk of Netflix's business entails shipping out older titles. "New releases are less than 30 percent of what we ship every day," he says.

Ross Rubin, the director of industry analysis for The NPD Group, a market research firm, says he sees potential in the Flexplay disc. "DVD rental is a large market," Rubin says. "If the company can overcome some of the educational challenges in helping consumers understand what it is and that it is only valid for one viewing session, and if they can line up more studio support, then there's an opportunity there."