Last week, Apple Computer
announced an iPod recycling program. The company will accept used iPods at any US-based Apple retail store, and as an incentive to encourage recycling give customers who drop off an old model a ten percent discount on a new player.
It’s a big step, and one that’s good for consumers on multiple fronts. It means that you can safely dispose of your iPod without worrying that it will end up in a landfill,
claim a discount on a new model. But for many environmentalists, the move still isn’t enough.
Apple’s new iPod recycling program comes after the company faced considerable pressure from green groups. Prior to announcing its new program, Apple had been
dogged by protests
from environmentalists, who called the company’s popular iPod “a time bomb for our health and environment.” The protesters stated goal was to get Apple to begin taking back its iPods at the end of their life-cycles.
So following Apple’s Friday announcement, are those same groups happy? Hardly. We spoke with Gopal Dayaneni, of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, one of the organizations that had been most vocally critical of Apple. At issue, he says, is more than just the iPod, or any particular brand of MP3 player or computer. The larger problem is electronic waste (e-waste) in general.
“Were happy to see that they’re taking the small step of taking back the iPod,” Dayaneni tells
, “but what about all the Mac Classics and Apple IIe’s that are being used as toxic doorstops around the country?”
Although an Apple spokesperson declined to comment on the record for this story, the company
points to its existing recycling program
as evidence of its green credentials. Apple claims a 90 percent recovery rate, by weight, of the electronics it collects for recycling. (The rate of recovery for iPods is similar, according to Apple.) Dell has a similar program, and both companies charge a small fee—to cover shipping costs each claims—to take back old computers. Such programs are becoming more common among major manufacturers. But good luck getting the manufacturer to take back that cheapo Chinese MP3 player you bought on eBay. Unless you dispose of it at a recycling center, more than likely, it’s going to end up as landfill e-waste.
“E-Waste is a little different than a tin-can or any other type of recyclable product,” says Dayaneni. “It’s extremely toxic in its production and its disposal. 40 percent of all the lead in [U.S.] landfills comes from electronic waste and it accounts for 70 percent of heavy metals.”
Much of that lead comes from CRT monitors, which thankfully are being largely displaced by more environmentally friendly flat screen models. The heavy metal found in the leaded-glass of CRT monitors—typically between three to six pounds—isn’t easily recyclable, and often ends up contaminating groundwater.
magazine recently reported that lead levels in rivers in Guiyu, China–where many CRTs are broken down for scrap—are 190 times the safe limit for drinking water. And the problem isn’t limited to Asia. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Minnesota have all passed some sort of legislation banning CRTs from landfills.
But CRTs aside, portable consumer electronics represent a growing concern. Anything with an integrated circuit board is likely to contain chromium, copper, lead, silver, tin and zinc. The rechargeable batteries that charge such devices are equally problematic, with stores of lead, mercury, and cadmium. As cell phones, MP3 players, PDAs, and digital cameras reach the end of their life cycles, they often head for landfills, rather than recycling programs, especially in the United States.
“Norway just released a report saying that they recovered 90 percent of electronic waste after its useful life. That means 90 percent of consumer electronics sold are recovered, by weight,” says Dayaneni. “If you add up all the electronic waste, 90 percent of it comes back. We’re properly recycling less than 20 percent in the United States.”
Despite voluntary take-back programs, such as Apple or Dell’s, e-waste remains a growing problem. The solution, says Dayaneni, is to require electronics manufacturers to take all products back at the end of their life cycle, free of charge.
“Requiring the manufactures to take responsilibilty at the end of their life will drive clean production. If you had to take all the garbage you produce from your kitchen, your bathroom, and your bedroom, and put it in your living room, you’d figure out how to make less garbage.”
For this reason, despite the company’s new iPod take-back scheme and existing recycling program, Dayaneni and other environmentalists are continuing to target Apple, he says.
“Apple’s a huge part of the mental mind-share, and they’re a company that promotes itself as a better company, an alternative company, a hip, new progressive company,” he says. “And when it comes to electronic issues there’s a lot more that they can do. We have to have a system to deal with electronic waste. We’re asking Steve Jobs to be more than just a mini player, and to really step up and take it all back.”
Ultimately, it is extremely unlikely that most electronics manufacturers will implement such programs without being required to do so by legislation. Yet just because take-back programs aren’t required in the United States, or the company you bought your MP3 player from doesn’t have one, that doesn’t mean you have to resign yourself to tossing toxins into landfills, or—the horror—doing without an MP3 player altogether. There are
several online resources
to help you
find a reputable electronics recycler
to take back your old consumer electronics, be they Apples, Dells, Rios, Nokias, or even cheapo Chinese eBay specials.
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