Analysis: Apple’s environmental progress is ongoing

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Apple has made some progress in meeting its self-imposed goals for making more environmentally friendly products. But a look at what Apple has done in the past year finds that the company still has some work ahead of it when it comes to reaching the environmental objectives outlined by Steve Jobs.

Those goals were spelled out by the Apple CEO nearly a year ago in an essay entitled A Greener Apple posted on Apple’s Web site. In his May 2007 letter, Jobs laid out not only what environmental efforts Apple was making at the time, but also what the company’s plans were for the future.

The goals set out by Jobs ranged from several fait accompli to more ambitious ongoing plans, but they focused primarily on two facets of environmental impact: the reduction of toxic chemicals in Apple products and the company’s recycling program.

Jobs’ public statement came as the company found itself the focus of an ongoing campaign by activist group Greenpeace, which did everything from picketing the 2007 Macworld Conference & Expo in San Francisco to setting up an Apple-specific environmental Web site to criticizing the company’s policies in a series of reports.

Apple’s efforts in the past year have paid off in at least one regard—the most recent version of Greenpeace’s 10-point Guide to Greener Electronics bumps up the company’s rating. “Apple was at a score of 4 a year ago,” said Rick Hind, Legislative Director of the Greenpeace Toxics Campaign. The organization’s most recent scorecard, published earlier this month, shows Apple with a score of 6.7, placing it at ninth out of the 18 companies ranked. “By having a global takeback program and completing BFR [brominated flame retardants] and PVC [polyvinyl chloride] eliminations, they could have a score of 7.7,” Hind said. That score would have put Apple in a tie with Samsung and Toshiba at the top of Greenpeace’s ratings.

With almost 11 months having passed since Jobs posted his letter on Apple’s environmental plans, here’s a look at the progress the company has made in meeting its stated goals.

Getting the lead out

In A Greener Apple, Jobs touted the fact that Apple had phased out CRT monitors, a major source of lead, and made a complete transition to LCD displays, well before any of its competitors. CRTs aren’t the only source of lead in computers, though: Apple’s environmental product design page concedes that a very small amount of lead can still be found in some of its products. The most recent iMac revision, for example, contains less than a gram of lead, though that’s undeniably a vast improvement over the 484 grams of the material used in the design of the original G3 iMac.

A quick survey of competitors Dell, HP, and Lenovo shows that all three manufacturers are still making and selling CRT monitors. None have as of yet announced plans to eliminate CRTs from their lineup.

Restriction of hazardous substances

The European Union has implemented a strict set of environmental guidelines known as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS). In his letter, Jobs stipulated that all of Apple’s products were compliant with the “spirit and letter” of RoHS, especially in as regards three specific chemicals: Cadmium, Hexavalent Chromium, and Decabromodiphenyl Ether, all of which have long been removed from Apple’s products. Jobs also pointed out that several of Apple’s competitors have continued using these materials in their products, taking advantage of exemptions from the RoHS standards.

Arsenic and old mercury

From the perspective of many Mac users, one of the most interesting tidbits that Jobs let drop in his May 2007 was the news that Apple would be transitioning its LCD displays from fluorescent to LED backlighting, a process that would, among other benefits, eliminate the use of mercury. “They did lead the way on mercury-free flat screens,” said Greenpeace’s Hind, who points to that chemical’s extreme toxicity.

But Apple noted that the transition was contingent on technical and economic feasibility. The iPhone and all models of iPhone use mercury-free displays, but the only Macs using LED-backlighting in Apple’s lineup are the 15-inch MacBook Pro introduced last June and the MacBook Air. The most recent MacBook Pro speed bumps brought an LED-backlit display as a build-to-order option on the 17-inch MacBook Pro, but the MacBook models released at the same time still use fluorescent backlighting, as do Apple’s Cinema Displays and the aluminum iMac.

Apple also promised to eliminate the use of arsenic in the glass of its LCD displays, a promise which has so far been met only by the MacBook Air and the optional high-resolution LED-backlit display available on the 17" MacBook Pro, though Apple says it plans to stop using arsenic completely by the end of 2008.

BFRs, PVCs, and other three-letter abbreviations

Two other materials to which Jobs drew particular attention were Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and Brominated flame retardants (BFRs). The CEO said that Apple had made great strides in reducing the use of both materials in all of its products and packaging, and planned to eliminate them completely by the end of 2008. According to Apple’s current environmental information, iPods use BFR-free circuit boards, the MacBook Air uses no PVC in its internal cables, and both the latest MacBook Pros and MacBooks feature mostly PVC-free internal cables and mostly BFR-free circuit boards.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

The final topic Jobs covered in his letter concerned Apple’s recycling program. In 2006, Apple had recycled 13 million pounds of e-waste, equivalent to 9.5 percent of the weight of the products it’d sold seven years prior in 1999 (a standard of measurement proposed by rival Dell). Jobs hoped to increase that percentage to 13 percent in 2007, 20 percent in 2008, and almost 30 percent in 2010, as well as expand recycling programs to almost all of the countries in which Apple products were sold.

Apple’s page on its recycling program doesn’t provide updated figures for either of these goals, but the company does now accept old cell phones along with all iPods and Macs from anywhere in the U.S., with free shipping, as Jobs promised. And those who buy qualifying Macs or displays from Apple can also recycle old equipment free of charge.

But Apple’s recycling programs still has shortcomings, especially in terms of its geographic availability. “Their recycling is not global and not universal,” said Greenpeace’s Hind. “It’s quite limited.”

Yearly updates

In closing his letter, Jobs vowed to provide on Apple’s environmental status on an annual basis. While Apple’s yearly shareholder meeting earlier this month seemed ripe for such an update, Jobs’s only remark on the topic was that there was work left to do, but that Apple was ahead of the industry.

At that meeting, shareholders were asked to vote on a motion to create a board committee for sustainability. But Apple, citing its recent environmental practices, recommended against the proposal—it did not pass. Apple did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Meanwhile, Apple has created a prominent section of its Web site devoted to environmental matters and appears to be in the process of revamping the Environment section of its newest Macs’ technical specifications, making them more prominent and providing a more transparent accounting of the environmental facets of each product.

While Apple has a lot of targets to hit by the end of 2008 in order to keep its promises, the company seems to be on the way to doing so though. As Steve Jobs would likely tell you, there’s still over 40 weeks to go.

This article was reposted at 2:35 p.m. PT to include the 17-inch MacBook Pro's optional LED-backlit display among the arsenic free displays in Apple's product line.

[Associate editor Dan Moren is co-editor of MacUser.]

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