May 1, 2017 - Robert John Hadfield

The Disintegration of our Audio and Video History

This is the first time in history that we have had 40-year-old cassette tapes. It is fascinating uncharted territory.


One of the things that makes plastic such a great material is its longevity. It's so durable and long-lasting that many people fear putting it in landfills. But even so, plastic does succomb to the ravages of time.

Chances are you own something that used to be white but has turned yellow. Sound familiar? Many polymers tend to yellow and become brittle over time. This breakdown of plastic can be caused by many things, but UV light and warm temperatures are some of the most common culprits.

And this can be a problem in cassette tapes.

Inside every cassette tape are two reels that are made of plastic. And each of these two reels is made up of two pieces - The first piece is the reel itself, and the second piece is a small piece of plastic that fits into a gap in the reel. This smaller piece of plastic is used to secure the tape to the reel.

This closeup photo will help you see the two pieces that make up the reel. You can also see how the smaller piece secures the tape to the reel.


As I mentioned above, as plastic ages it not only changes color, but it becomes brittle. The picture with the broken pieces shows the result of plastic that has become brittle over several decades.

The little piece of plastic that holds the tape to the reel is under a slight amount of pressure, and as the plastic becomes brittle, that slight pressure can actually break the plastic. No matter how delicate you tape player is, once it is broken, the tape will come off the reel and require a repair.

In the photo of the broken reel, you can actually see that the second reel (on the left) is broken too. If you look closely, you will notice that there is a little angle on the reel where it should be round. There is an arrow pointing to that spot in the photo. It is almost certain that reel will need to be replaced too.

Unfortunately, you can't repair the reel. The best way to take care of this is to get a new reel altogether. Cassette tape reels are interchangeable, so it's as simple as pulling a reel out of an old cassette tape and replacing the broken one.

Luckily, this issue is VERY rare. Of the hundreds of thousands of cassette tapes that have come through our studio, we have seen this issue maybe fifty times. But as years go on, it will almost certainly become more common.

Last week I wrote a blog about the deterioration of audio tape. Because audio tape is partly made of plastic, it is vulnerable to this same deterioration. It too can become rigid and brittle. You can read that blog here.

Nothing lasts forever, not even plastic. :)

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