Apple, the celebrated computer company, has been rated worst among major electronics firms for its environmental policies by the pressure group Greenpeace.
In a new survey of 14 major companies, the manufacturer of the Mac, the Powerbook and the iPod was put bottom of the list for its policies on the elimination of toxic substances and recycling. It was an unaccustomed stain on the halo for the firm with the highest brand and repurchase loyalty of any computer manufacturer, a glittering reputation as a design leader, and a fan base as enthusiastic as any rock band's.
Greenpeace charged that Apple "scores badly on almost all criteria" in a detailed survey of its environmental attitudes and practices, ranging from timetables for phasing out hazardous chemicals to the adoption of the precautionary principle. The ranking was made in the updated version of Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics, which was published yesterday on the Greenpeace International website.
When the guide was first published, last September, Apple was ranked 10th; now it is ranked 14th out of 14. In a surprise first place on the list was the Chinese PC maker Lenovo, which displaced Nokia.
The Greenpeace report does not scientifically compare the environmental qualities of the products of the different companies, merely the companies' published policies.
Apple said yesterday that it disagreed both with Greenpeace's rating and the criteria the group had chosen, and gave a robust defence of its environmental position. "Apple has a strong environmental track record and has led the industry in restricting and banning toxic substances such as mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium, as well as many BFRs (brominated flame retardants)," the company said.
The background to the dispute between Greenpeace and Apple is the growing concern about the phenomenon of e-waste - electrical and electronic goods which have come to the end of their lives. The production of all these devices, from computers and printers to CD players and mobile phones, is the fastest-growing sector in the manufacturing industry in the industrialised countries.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that between 20 and 50 million tons of them are thrown away as obsolete every year - with potentially serious risks to human health and the environment. This is because they are classed as hazardous waste for the toxic chemicals they contain, and so are expensive to recycle properly. Instead, huge amounts are shipped (especially from the US) to China and India, where they are broken up for scrap, often by children, in dumps.
Greenpeace is mounting a two-pronged campaign against what it says is an environmental disaster in the making by pressuring the manufacturers both to phase out the toxic chemicals inside the products, and to take responsibility for disposing of the products at the end of their lives by taking them back from customers and recycling them.
In particular, it is calling for the elimination of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, used as an insulator with internal cabling, and of all brominated flame retardants, chemicals used to laminate printed circuit boards to prevent them catching fire.
In Europe (including Britain) a new EU law coming in this year, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (known as the WEEE directive), will make producer-responsibility for end-of-life electronic goods compulsory, but there is no such regulation in America or elsewhere. The Greenpeace guide measures the voluntary performance of electronics firms on the chemicals and producer-responsibility issues. A major surprise is the emergence at the top of the list of Lenovo which, although it is China's rapidly growing computer giant, is a company which many people have not yet heard of.
"Lenovo scores top marks on its e-waste policies and practice," Greenpeace said yesterday. "The company offers takeback and recycling in all the countries where its products are sold. Lenovo also reports the amount of e-waste it recycles as a percentage of its sales. However, the company has yet to put on the market products that are free of the worst chemicals."
But even more eye-catching is the bottom rating awarded to Apple which, says the group, "having made no progress since the launch of the Guide in August 2006, continues to languish in last place".
Greenpeace charges: "Apple fails to embrace the precautionary principle, withholds its full list of regulated substances, and provides no timelines for eliminating toxic PVC and no commitment to phasing out all uses of brominated flame retardants. Apple performs poorly on product takeback and recycling, but it does report on the amounts of its electronic waste recycled."
Apple rejects its low ranking, saying: "We have... completely eliminated CRT monitors, which contain lead, from our product line. Apple desktops, notebooks and displays each score best-in-class in the new EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency] ranking system EPEAT, which uses international standards set by IEEE [formerly the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers]."
Greenpeace is inviting owners of Apple hardware to write to Steve Jobs, the company's founder and boss, asking him to provide "greener" products.
The green list
Greenpeace rated each company on its policies on recycling and use of toxic chemicals:
1: Lenovo 8/10
2: Nokia 7.3
3: Sony Ericsson 7.0
4: Dell 7.0
5: Samsung 7.3
6: Motorola 6.3
7: Fujitsu-Siemens 6.0
8: HP 5.6
9: Acer 5.3
10: Toshiba 4.3
11: Sony 4.0
12: LGE 3.6
13: Panasonic 3.6
14: Apple 2.7
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited