Al Gore’s new poison Apple

By Eric Naing

Environmentalism is officially cool. Everywhere you look, Leonardo DiCaprio is driving a hybrid car and Brad Pitt is developing “green” houses in Louisiana. So why then is uber-hip Apple Computers with rock star environmentalist Al Gore on the board of directors ranked so poorly by Greenpeace for its environmental practices?

According to the Computer Take Back Campaign, old computers and other electronics make up the fastest growing segment of waste we produce. Even worse, these products can contain toxic chemicals such as Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), mercury, lead and brominated flame retardants (BFR). Almost 40 percent of toxic heavy metals found in landfills come from electronic equipment. Apple is not solely responsible for this but compared to rivals such as Hewlett Packard and Nokia, it could do much, much more.

One way to alleviate this problem is to recycle old computers, but less than 10 percent of discarded computers are being recycled right now. Both Hewlett Packard and Dell allow you to give back your old computers for safer disposal. Apple has bowed to pressure and started such a program in the United States, but has yet to institute such a policy globally. The company has even gone so far as to lobby against legislation forcing companies to take responsibility for their old products.

Wired Magazine reports that in 2005 alone, Apple generated 4.1 million pounds of “e-waste.” Apple products seem designed to become obsolete waste. Giles Slade, author of “Made to Break” calls this “planned obsolescence.” The iPod has a lithium-ion battery which can not be replaced and is designed to run out one month after the warranty expires. You can send it back to Apple for a replacement battery, but they would rather have you buy a new one. Between this battery scam and the introduction of new iPods seemingly every few months, you can see how waste builds up.

While watching “An Inconvenient Truth,” I couldn’t help but notice that Al Gore’s MacBook was getting almost as much screen time as Gore himself. If he knew his laptop was made of harmful PVCs, would he switch to a PC? Or is he contractually obliged to use an Apple computer? Apple claims to be working toward reducing PVCs and BFRs, but unlike other companies, it has not announced any set date when these chemicals would be removed from products such as the MacBook and the iPod Nano.

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One reason why Apple needs a global take back program is because many discarded Apple products end up in developing nations such as China and India where they are stripped for parts, thus letting out these contaminants.

Apple is not all bad. They have made strides in reducing waste, especially in their packaging, but they could do much more good. First of all, Apple needs a global take back system so that all their obsolete products worldwide can be disposed of safely. Secondly, Apple needs to either make sure iPod batteries are free of toxic chemicals or at least allow the batteries to be replaced manually or more affordably. Most importantly, Apple needs to practice greater transparency. The company is notoriously secretive about its environmental practices. Other computer companies such as HP and Dell have publicly stated goals to reduce waste and eliminate harmful chemicals, Apple does not. Neither has the company made public its list of regulated substances.

Al Gore joined Apple’s board of directors in 2003 and yet, many glaring blemishes on the company’s environmental record still remain unaddressed. As someone who once volunteered for Mr. Gore’s presidential campaign, owns an iPod and wants a shiny new MacBook Pro, it pains me to be critical of either party.

Environmentalism is the new Ugg Boot, or low-rise jeans, or whatever is cool these days. Apple needs to get on the ball and reclaim its status as a trendsetter by going green. Not only would it be good for Al Gore and good for the company, it would also be good for the Earth.