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Apple Computers: Fun for You, Toxic for the Environment

Apple positions itself as the technological haven for the hip, the progressive and the revolutionary. But when it comes to the environment, Apple is quite out of touch.
 
 
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Before an audience of tech lovers, developers, and Mac enthusiasts, Steve Jobs unveiled the creation everyone has been speculating about for years: the iPhone. Fans hung on every word as the Apple CEO stood onstage during his keynote address at the Macworld Expo in San Francisco. Dressed in a black mock turtleneck, he told the rapt crowd about patents for polymers, innovative user interfaces and corporate partnerships.

Jobs went on for nearly two hours about how amazing and revolutionary his gadget will be. But he did not mention the company's environmental policy once.

Then again, who talks about environmental policy at an electronics fair? Michael Dell does. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas during the second week of January, the head of struggling Dell Computers raised the stakes for the entire PC industry: "I challenge every PC maker to join us in providing free recycling for every customer in every country ... all the time -- no exceptions," he said.

Jobs and the PR wizards at Apple have done a fantastic job of positioning the company as the technological haven for the hip, the progressive and the revolutionary. But when it comes to the environment, Apple is out of touch.

In December of 2006, Greenpeace released a report ranking the overall environmental policy of major technology companies. Dell was at the top but Apple found itself at the bottom. While top companies like Dell and Nokia have made great strides to eliminate the most toxic chemicals from their products and offer strong recycling programs, Apple has not.

"Today you can't recycle most of these products because you're recycling toxic waste," says Rick Hind, legislative director of the Greenpeace Toxic Campaign. "We're looking at it from a complete life cycle approach, from where we make these to where they end up. Twenty to 50 million tons of e-waste a year end up in China; that [e-waste] is endangering to migrant families trying to remove a very small percentage of the materials for recycling."

Following the release of the report, Greenpeace launched "GreenMyApple," a full-force PR campaign complete with an informational website that impressively mimics Apple's website. Activists distributed flyers outside of the Moscone Center during the full week of Macworld Expo. The group also altered the video of the famous Steve Jobs keynote address, creating their fantasy version of the keynote in which Jobs would announce that Apple plans not only to step up their environmental policies but will make environmental responsibility a part of the company's identity.

To date, Apple has done only what is legally required. They are in compliance with RoHS standards ("the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment"), which were put in place in the European Union in July 2006. Pressure from environmental groups like the Computer Take Back Campaign combined with changing legal standards forced Apple to come up with a recycling program that at least looked like it was green -- but that's about it.

Apple refuses to make "green" part of their image. Just finding the environmental section on its website requires either a search of the site or knowing that "apple.com/environment" will get you there. Among all of the tabs in the navigation bar at the top of the pages, "Environment" is nowhere to be found. "As their website shows, green can be turned into greenwash," says Hind. "What we're talking about is measuring them based on toxics and recycling that is a serious physical problem."

Apple spokesperson Kristin Huguet provided the official Apple response to the Greenpeace ranking and campaign: "We disagree with Greenpeace's rating and the criteria they chose. Apple has a strong environmental track record and has led the industry in restricting and banning toxic substances such as mercury, cadmium, hexavelent chromium, as well as many brominated flame retardants. We have also completely eliminated CRT monitors, which contain lead, from our product line. Apple desktops, notebooks, and displays, each score best in class in the new EPA ranking system EPEAT, which uses new international standards set by IEEE."

Apple contends that it is as green as it needs to be and supports that contention with the Silver medal it earned from the EPA's U.S. Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) back in July of 2006. But the sets of criteria used by Greenpeace and the EPA are very different.

For one, the EPA criteria apply to specific products and apply only to stateside programs. Greenpeace's criteria evaluate the company as a whole and are more critical. In a Jan. 12 article on IT Week's Green Business News, Scot Case, marketing director at EPEAT, said, "My initial reaction was that comparing the two systems was like comparing apples and oranges, but on closer inspection it is more like comparing apples and cows."

Yet Apple uses the EPEAT results to refute the Greenpeace grade. Obvious disparities aside, even though Apple did well by EPEAT standards, it still didn't earn a Gold medal. Shouldn't an industry leader strive to achieve the highest possible grade?

Through its "Think Different" campaign a few years ago, Apple positioned itself as the "alternative" computer manufacturer using pictures of idols ranging from Einstein to Gandhi. It targeted a particular segment of the consumer computer market, and to this day, many of its users remain loyal. Many of those users also happen to be socially, politically and environmentally conscious. Yet, Apple has been resistant to take the lead, and Jobs himself has been, at times, downright indignant.

In 2005, in the wake of criticism from environmental organization Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition, Jobs commented on Apple's being "singled out" and called it "bullshit." Barbara Kyle at the Computer Take Back Campaign, a group instrumental in the first push for Apple to establish a recycling program, says, "They're the company that 'thinks different.' We were puzzled all the way along with Apple's behavior."

Since Apple has only gone as far as it needs to, the company already has a lot of catching up to do in order to keep up with other companies in the market who make green policy a priority.

On Jan. 10, 2007, Dell announced that it had teamed up with the Conservation Fund and carbonfund.org to offer a program called "Plant a Tree for Me." When a new Dell computer is purchased, the consumer can opt to add an extra $2 to the cost of the computer. That money will be turned over by Dell to its environmental partners and be dedicated to reforestation. Dell also already offers free recycling of all of its old systems as well as other brands' systems to new Dell customers. Those not buying new Dell systems or recycling old ones can send their e-waste to Dell to be recycled for less than the California sales tax on a new MacBook: $10 per box under 50 lbs.

Compare Dell's program to that of Apple. Before 2005, Apple's recycling programs were virtually nonexistent. Recycling an old Mac meant finding other uses, like turning them into MacQuariums, iMacquariums, or, for G4 Cube owners, Cubequariums.

It has since developed recycling programs in the continental United States and only in foreign countries where mandated by law. It accepts computers only when you buy a new Mac from an Apple retail store or through Apple's online store, and the box you click before checkout is not easy to find.

"It's one thing to say that we're going to have another take-back program, but it's another to say that we're really going to try to make people use it," says Kyle. In addition to the poorly publicized recycling program, Apple is no longer making products to last. "Recycling should be the second thing you do after reusing and extending the life span," says Hind. "That is not an environmental obstacle, it's an intentional obsolescence designed to sell more products."

While Bill Gates publicizes his dedication to philanthropy and Michael Dell rolls out environmentally conscious policy after policy, Steve Jobs is prank-calling Starbucks with the iPhone. And now Greenpeace is calling Apple out on its hypocrisy.

"It's a great irony that the company that markets itself as revolutionary is actually the most reactionary on these policies compared to all of the other major companies," comments Hind. "If once a big user says 'I want it toxic-free,' the engineers and other suppliers are going to scramble to make that; they want that customer. It is crucial that the corporate policies of these companies take the lead."

It is the contradiction between image and action, though, that gives Greenpeace hope that Apple will eventually come around. "That kind of contradiction can't be sustained if you continue with that kind of marketing profile," says Hind. "They have a lot of customers who are critical thinkers, and they have a lot of future customers who are critical thinkers. Don't try to look green, be green."

Barbara Kyle is also hopeful. "If Apple is really willing to make the commitment and actually follow through with it on a number of things -- on takeback, on green design, on any number of things -- they have a chance to shape people's consumer behavior in a way that I think other companies are really challenged to do," says Kyle. "Apple can make this stuff cool."

Jess Hemerly is an editor at MacTribe and a contributing writer at Chord.