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.
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computers become outdated each year, and studies suggest that between 315 and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
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
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
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.