Apple performs U-turn on chemicals and take-back

Apple has set a timetable to phase out some of the most hazardous chemicals in its products, bowing to

a crescendo of stakeholder pressure over its environmental policies.

Last year Greenpeace called on Apple to remove the most toxic chemicals from all products and production lines, and to provide free "take-back" for all products worldwide. More than 45,000 people sent emails backing the campaign.

In March, Greenpeace ranked Apple bottom in its guide to electronics manufacturers. The company had also scored badly the previous year (ENDS Report 380, pp 4-5 ).

Greenpeace toxics campaigner Iza Kruszewska said she used information from company websites to rank the firms, and gave them the opportunity to comment before publishing. "Apple did not say we had missed anything," she said.

Meanwhile, Apple’s board of directors faced the prospect of a vote on two shareholder resolutions on chemicals and waste at its annual shareholder meeting on 10 May.

Trillium Asset Management Corporation, a socially responsible investment company, planned to submit a proposal calling for Apple to report on the feasibility of phasing out hazardous substances from all products and setting an "expeditious" timetable to end use of PVC and all brominated flame retardants. At this point, Apple had merely promised to eliminate PVC and certain BFRs in specific applications - and had not set a deadline.

Shareholders led by US activist group As You Sow filed a separate resolution calling for Apple to improve its recycling efforts.

Apple’s board, which includes former US Vice President Al Gore, recommended a vote against both proposals, saying existing policies were sufficient.

Its "unanimous" opposition to the proposals prompted a coalition of 70 activists, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, to lobby Mr Gore. On 21 March, they wrote a letter urging him to use his influence as an Apple board member and a "global environmental leader" to keep Apple from making a "serious mistake".

A week before the shareholder meeting, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs announced that Apple had set targets on chemicals and waste, and would provide regular updates on progress.

"NGO pressure probably amplified voices on the Apple board and among staff encouraging Mr Jobs to step forward with a statement," said Barbara Kyle, campaign coordinator of the Computer TakeBack Campaign and one of the letter’s signatories.

In his statement, Mr Jobs acknowledged that Apple had been criticised "for not being a leader in removing toxic chemicals from its new products, and for not aggressively or properly recycling its old products," but claimed that "in many cases Apple is ahead of, or will soon be ahead of, most of its competitors in these areas."

Mr Jobs claimed that Apple had only failed to "trumpet" its achievements and "desires and plans to become greener". He claimed that Apple had been greening its products all along, and apologised for keeping people "in the dark".

Mr Jobs himself, it seems, was equally uniformed. It was to his "surprise" and "delight" that he "learned how far along Apple actually is".

Apple set a deadline to eliminate PVC and all BFRs in all products by the end of 2008, which Greenpeace said "marked a clear change in Apple’s environmental policy" and beat pledges by Dell and other manufacturers to phase them out by 2009.

Apple plans to stop using arsenic in displays by the end of 2008, and will reduce and eventually eliminate the use of mercury in its displays by switching from fluorescent lighting to light-emitting diodes "when technically and economically feasible". The first Macs with LED backlighting will be launched this year.

Trillium’s resolution noted that Apple had been forced to withdraw several products that did not comply with the EU Directive on the restriction of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment. But Apple claimed that it complied with such legislation.

Apple’s policy of allowing customers to take unwanted iPods back to its stores for "proper disposal" will be expanded to Apple stores worldwide, and will include free shipping in the US.

However, Greenpeace criticised Apple’s failure to copy Dell and Lenovo and implement a global take-back policy for all products.

The Computer TakeBack Campaign is also urging Apple to stop lobbying against take-back legislation, and to ensure electronic waste does go to developing countries for recycling.

Mr Jobs said Apple would also address energy efficiency, and is assessing the carbon footprints of its products.

Investors applauded Apple’s revised policy and withdrew their resolutions in response. Sanford Lewis, an attorney who wrote Trillium’s resolution, said he hoped the prospect of management facing shareholders without responses to the issues raised had "increased the urgency to act". Greenpeace’s action and the coalition of activists had a definite impact, he said.

NGOs and investors will continue to press Apple to be more transparent and use the precautionary principle for all harmful, persistent and bioaccumulative toxic chemicals and potential substitutes. They also want the company to extend producer responsibility for products in the US to a global level, and expand its take-back and recycling programme to other products internationally.

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