How Green Is Thy Mac? Greener Than Greenpeace Wants You To Think

Arik Hesseldahl

Steve Jobs stepped into the light with another long essay today (I still think he should start a blog) on Apple’s environmental policies. Remember if you will that little kerfuffle a few weeks back about how the environmental organization was using its considerable PR chops to smack Apple around a little for the nasty chemicals that go inside its computers, all the while making nice with Dell. I didn’t think much of its claims and for the most part, still don’t.

Jobs finally shot back today in a signed six-page statement entitled “A Greener Apple,” saying that after investigating the matter, it’s his opinion that Apple is either ahead of many of the companies that Greenpeace has graded higher, or soon will be ahead of them. More after the jump.

One reason for the bad grades from Greenpeace? Communication, he says. “It is generally not Apple’s policy to trumpet our plans for the future; we tend to talk about the things we have just accomplished. Unfortunately this policy has left our customers, shareholders, employees and the industry in the dark about Apple’s desires and plans to become greener,” he writes.

So here’s the rundown. Greenpeace had been pressuring Al Gore, the former vice president and current Apple director to use his influence to get Apple to study the feasibility and make a commitment to two things: removing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardant (BFR) from its products. PVC makes plastics flexible and is widely used in the outer coatings of wiring. BFR is used to coat motherboards to help keep them from bursting into flames, given the heat that the CPU chip can produce.

Additionally, it has been publicly berating Apple and comparing it unfavorable to Dell, Hewlett-Packard and others, while many of those companies are essentially in the same boat. All still use PVC and BFR in their computers, but Dell and HP get better grades than Apple for their commitments to do something about it at varying dates in the future. Whoopie.

So on the subject of PVC Jobs says this: “Apple began phasing out PVC 12 years and began restricting BFRs in 2001. For the past several years we have been developing alternative materials that can replace these chemicals without compromising the safety or quality of our products.” On BFR: 3 million iPods have shipped with a BFR-free motherboard already.

But here’s the big news that should get Apple a better grade soon: Jobs committed to shipping PVC- and BFR-free products by the end of next year. This trumps Dell’s commitment to rid itself of PVC and BFR by 2009, and HP’s plans to publish a plan about how it will do this by the end of 2007.

On recycling of old computers and other components, he said that recycling programs are in place in the countries where Apple sells 82% of all Macs and iPods are sold, and he’s promised to raise that percentage to 93% by the end of this year.

But he also raises questions about the efficacy of these programs: “Currently, there is no industry standard way to measure of the effectiveness of a company’s recycling programs. Dell has proposed a simple measure - assume a seven year product lifetime, and measure the percentage of the total weight you recycle each year compared to the total weight of what you sold seven years earlier. This makes sense to us, and has the added advantages of clarity and simplicity.” Here he reckons Apple compares nicely to Dell and HP, especially when you consider that both sell far more products by unit volume and weight than Apple does.

He also takes price in pointing out that the materials inside Apple’s products are in high demand by recyclers: aircraft grade aluminum for instance.

Finally he promises to provide regular updates “at least annually,” and using the environment buzz phrase of the moment, he says that Apple is looking for ways to reduce the “carbon footprint” (did I just hear Al Gore in there?) of Apple products, and may have some interesting data and issues to share later. Oooh. Did I just hear a challenge?

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