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E-Waste and iWoes

Computers and their accessories contain toxins such as mercury and lead, causing massive environmental damage worldwide. But not all of the major computer companies are serious about reducing waste.
 
 
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When Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the stage to deliver a candid commencement speech at Stanford this past June, a plane flew over the stadium with a banner that read: "Steve -- don't be a mini player -- recycle all e-waste."

This was the latest stunt by the Computer Take-Back Campaign (CTBC), an environmental crusade supported by activist groups who have criticized Apple for lagging behind the rest of the computer industry in its recycling efforts.

The plane's banner referred to Apple's recent announcement that it will now accept iPods for free recycling at all of its stores in exchange for 10 percent off the purchase of a new iPod. Until June, organizations like the CTBC and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) roundly denounced Apple for charging $100 to replace the battery in its highly successful mp3 players.

While Apple's latest attempt was seen as a small step toward greener pastures, it didn't assuage activist concerns. "We're glad to hear that Apple will accept its problematic iPods for free recycling," said Robin Schneider, vice-president of CTBC, "but we are calling on Mr. Jobs to offer free recycling for all of their old products."

Electronic waste, or e-waste, refers to all consumer electronic products that are ready to be discarded into the waste stream. Once these devices are deposited into landfills, toxic substances leach into the earth and into the water supply. According to a recent study from the Government Accountability Office, 50 million computers become outdated each year, and studies suggest that between 315 and 600 million desktop and laptop computers will soon be obsolete.

In its semiannual report [PDF] to Congress from November 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the piles of e-waste are growing three times faster than normal municipal waste. Our ever-growing reliance on computers makes them particularly dangerous as e-waste, then, because their cathode ray tubes, circuit boards and monitors contain toxins like mercury, cadmium and lead. The CTBC claims that e-waste accounts for approximately 40 percent of these three toxins that end up landfills, noting that "just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate 20 acres of a lake, making the fish unfit to eat."

Unfortunately, the EPA estimates that only 10 percent of e-waste is recycled annually. Even more upsetting, though, are the conditions in which some of these materials are recycled. While some firms operate under strict environmental regulations with adequate protocols to protect workers' health, many do not.

E-Waste Goes Global

In 2002, the Basel Action Network (BAN) along with the SVTC released a groundbreaking, heartrending investigation called Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia [PDF].

BAN found that 50 to 80 percent of e-waste collected in the western U.S. for recycling is actually exported to countries like China, India, and Pakistan. The investigative team witnessed the toxic dumping of lead-laden cathode ray tubes in open fields and rivers not far from populated areas, the open burning of plastics and wires, and exposure to toxic solders from circuit boards. They also documented hundreds of thousands of migrant workers (men, women and children), who were forced to break apart and process obsolete computers, completely unaware of the health and environmental hazards involved.

The startling findings of BAN's investigation explain why the CTBC and SVTC have been so vocal in protesting Apple's recycling policies. "We want Apple to be a leader in our take-back campaign," said Barbara Kyle, CTBC campaign coordinator. "It's surprising they're so resistant as a 'Think Different' company." At a recent Apple shareholders meeting at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA, their concerns were finally heard. With protestors outside, Steve Jobs broke from his comments to refute SVTC's allegations one by one, adding, "To say we're insensitive or irresponsible is just bullshit."

But while environmental groups have been squeezing Apple from the outside, non-profit organization As You Sow has been working on Apple and other industry leaders from within. Dedicated to promoting corporate social responsibility, As You Sow represents shareholders, engaging in dialogues with companies on social and economic issues. In a memo on Apple's computer recycling performance, As You Sow stated, "We have urged Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM to take responsibility for most or all of the cost of product recycling; to reach an industry-wide agreement on infrastructure for efficient product take-back; and to develop better systems for safe, transparent breakdown and recycling of products."

Tons o' Fun

As shareholder advocates, As You Sow asked these tech giants to adopt better environmental policies that prohibit the dumping of e-waste. Dell was the first corporation to step up to the table, soon to be followed by HP. After working with these two companies between 2002 and 2004, Dell recovered computers and peripheral equipment weighing a total of over 15,500 tons. HP recycled well over 100,000 tons. On the other hand, Apple did not make a similar pledge to As You Sow, and only managed to recycle about 1,500 tons of e-waste in 2002 and a comparable amount in 2003. IBM has also pursued their own recycling methods, and processed 68,831 tons of e-waste worldwide in 2003, sending 1,112 tons of that total to landfills.

"Fifteen-hundred tons a year is a start," Barbara Kyle said of Apple, "but it's just not the kind of comprehensive program that we're looking for." Apple spokesman Fletcher Cook defended his company's environmental stance in an interview. "Apple takes recycling and the environment very seriously," he said, explaining that as part of Apple's take-back program, the $30 Apple charges consumers for each electronic device they want to recycle (be it Apple or another brand) covers the costs of shipping the product to a recycling facility.

Cook reiterated Steve Jobs' words from the shareholder meeting, asserting that Apple does not ship its e-waste abroad. When asked if Apple did in the past, however, Cook refused to comment. Nor would Cook provide details of any future e-waste initiatives the company has planned. He merely referred me to Apple's hard-to-find recycling page on its website that gives a bare-bones summary of their environmental agenda.

Meanwhile, Dell and HP have collaborated with major companies to stimulate consumer recycling. But while As You Sow appreciates the efforts of all four of these tech companies in initiating take-back programs (IBM also charges $29.99 per computer), Conrad MacKerron, the director of As You Sow's Corporate Responsibility Program, feels that "charging for this service is a significant disincentive for consumers to use it." MacKerron added, "Both HP and Dell have sponsored free additional nationwide incentive programs to get millions of pounds [thousands of tons] of old equipment out of people's closets and into a safe waste stream." Last year, HP joined up with Office Depot to allow consumers to drop off old computers without charge at any Office Depot location. In the summer alone, the program collected 5,250 tons of e-waste.

Taking it on the Road

Soon after that, Dell embarked on a National Recycling Tour, collecting 1,000 tons of obsolete computers. MacKerron pointed out that Dell doesn't have stores to which consumers can send old products (unlike HP and Apple), but they just partnered with Goodwill to open a free recycling center in San Francisco. Dell has even begun to profit from their take-back campaign by charging big businesses larger take-back fees in order to defray the costs of recycling the e-waste of individual consumers. By contrast, Apple held one free day of recycling, whereby consumers could avoid the $30 fee if they dropped their e-waste off at the Apple headquarters in Cupertino.

MacKerron agreed that Dell's and HP's responsiveness was partly due to outside pressure from SVTC. It seems that once activist coalitions get the attention of these tech leaders, As You Sow can bring them to the negotiating table by speaking to management on behalf of shareholders. All of these groups, however, have similar goals in mind. For starters, the U.S. needs to sign the Basel Convention, a U.N. environmental treaty that strictly forbids developed countries from exporting hazardous waste. Both MacKerron and Kyle said that as this country begins to recognize the hazards of e-waste, a variety of recycling channels will open up.

Some state legislatures have already adopted e-waste recycling policies, with costs either being paid by the corporation or the consumer. Meanwhile, Congress is currently weighing two bills that would establish a national e-waste recycling plan (one creates a free market approach through tax incentives while the other puts the program more squarely the hands of the EPA). Still, environmental groups agree that our best bet for now would be to allow states to create recycling practices that work best for them.

And while both the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and As You Sow are in favor of state regulations, and, ultimately, a national recycling plan, they feel that the corporations themselves should take the first steps by claiming responsibility for their own e-waste. They should adopt a chain of custody in addition to their product stewardship policies, so that they can ensure their e-waste ends up in the proper recycling facilities. "We're just hoping that companies like Apple will stand up and be good, green citizens," Kyle said.

Search for a computer recycling service provider in your area by entering your zipcode at earth911.org.

Zack Pelta-Heller is a freelance writer living in Astoria, NY. Currently, he's an assistant editor for Dell Magazines. (Full disclosure: This article was written on an Apple computer. The author is a longtime fan of Apple, which made their environmental agenda that much more disappointing.)