Last month the United Nations announced a public-private initiative called Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP). Industry partners include Dell, Microsoft, Ericsson and Philips. But not Apple.
Last week Greenpeace released its third “Guide to Greener Electronics.” In this report they rank electronics manufacturers on their “policies and practice on eliminating harmful chemicals and on taking responsibility for their products once they are discarded by consumers.” Apple ended up at the bottom of the list. Again.
As many people are well aware, I’m a big fan of Apple and its products. However, I’m more a fan of the world that I live in and the people that coexist there with me.
So, as much as it pains me, due to the company’s pathetic environmental track record and policies, I feel obliged to make this public recommendation: don’t buy Apple’s products.
Apple is a public corporation and if we want them to change, we need to hit them where it hurts: the bottom line. We need to let them know that environmental stewardship must become a part of their economic reality.
Somehow, though, it seems odd that we have to take such drastic action to remind them of this when a celebrity environmental guru, Al Gore, sits on their board of directors.
There are generally two interdependent issues surrounding e-waste and its impacts on the environment and humanity.
First is the question of what materials a computer maker chooses to build into a computer. What’s known as the Precautionary Principle should guide this decision making process: the more dangerous substances a manufacturer builds into their products, the more difficult and dangerous it will be to recycle and dispose of.
Apple, for example, generally ignores the Precautionary Principle. The company continues to manufacture laptops and iPods with highly toxic fire retardents and PVCs that pretty much every other company has stopped using. Furthermore, there are traces of lead in the solder used in some of their components.
After a device’s useful lifetime comes the question of what to do with it.
Greenpeace stresses an approach to a computer’s afterlife called Individual Producer Responsibility, or IPR. This basically means that each producer of waste is directly responsible for dealing with its disposal. In other words, when a computer is no longer useful, the company that manufactured it should take it back in whatever markets they sell, and safely deal with it.
Many manufacturers, including Dell, Lenovo, and Nokia, offer to take back their own products wherever they are sold in the world. Apple, however, offers spotty international coverage and will only accept certain items, mainly iPods.
The point of the Precautionary Principle and the IPR is to get electronics manufacturers to conceive of the total lifecycle of the products they design and manufacture.
If a company is responsible for recycling and disposing of the products they produce, then they will ensure those products can be more efficiently dealt with in as safe a manner as possible.
That’s why Apple gets such a failing grade: they clearly just don’t care. Apple can afford to put toxic substances into their products because the company is not responsible for cleaning that stuff up.
Instead, they seem satisfied to allow their products to be disposed of illegally into third world countries.
Annually, 4 billion tonnes of electronic waste is produced and generally dumped on the world’s poor in places like China, India, and Nigeria. That waste, laced with toxic substances such as mercury and lead, is informally recycled by a labour force that includes children who might make a buck or two a day.
Really, though, why should Apple care about those kids? It’s unlikely they would ever have been in a position to afford an iPod, much less a Mac, anyway.
If Apple won’t care about those kids, I figure we should. Which is why I recommend against buying Apple’s products until the company decides underprivileged third-world kids are just as important as spoiled first-world ones.
Apple’s corporate strategy is all about good design that produces good financial results. If we want them to include environmental stewardship in that strategy, we need to let them know. We can do that by impacting their bottom line.
If you agree, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill out the form on Greenpeace’s web site at greenpeace.org/apple. Make sure you let Apple’s CEO know you’re imposing a personal moratorium on their products until they clean up their act.
So, what does Apple have to do to get my consumer support back?
First, they must quit designing toxic chemicals into their products as of right now. If a company like Dell can do it, Apple certainly can.
Second, Apple needs to institute a standardized, global product take-back policy. Whatever e-waste mess Apple produces, Apple should be prepared to clean up, from whatever global market they do business in.
Third, they need to make a public statement outlining their new e-waste policies, and communicate clearly how consumers can take advantage of their take-back program.
Finally, they need to become leaders in the design of clean computing products. Apple’s been so far behind for so long, they need to jump ahead.
This is a company known for its design ingenuity, it’s time for them to apply their skills to protecting the environment from the dirty side effects of electronics manufacturing and waste.
The manufacture of a single PC requires 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals. If Apple can produce an iPod that weighs less than an ounce, surely they can help drop the amount of fossil fuel required to produce a Mac below 200 kg.
Personally, I was planning on upgrading to a Mac Pro desktop this summer. However, after reading about Apple’s reprehensible e-waste record, my stomach turned and my mind changed. In an age when global warming is so clearly and so directly impacting the lives of so many people in so many regions of the world, I simply can’t, in good conscience, support a company so ignorant.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, April 13, 2007.