Macs are built to last – but even Apple kit can and does die.
If it's beyond repair, that means you need to dispose of it. You wouldn't dump an old computer in landfill, but many people do.
Every year, mountains of electronic waste are shipped to Asia where they're broken down to their component parts in shocking conditions, with heavy metals and hazardous chemicals leaking into the Earth.
Back in 1997, the average lifespan of a computer was six years. By 2005, that had dropped to two years – and the lifespan of a mobile phone is even shorter, with many people upgrading or replacing their phones every 18 months.
In an ideal world, everybody who buys an iPhone or switches to a Mac will send their old phone to Oxfam and give their old PC to the Apple Store for recycling. Sadly we don't live in an ideal world, and Greenpeace estimates that up to 50 million tonnes of electronic waste is dumped each and every year.
However, the good news is that things are slowly getting better. Apple has unveiled its greenest Macs yet, it's cut down on bulky packaging, it's removed some of the worst nasties from its products and it's now happy to take old computing kit when you buy new Apple kit.
So how green is Apple – and is there anything we can do to make it greener still?
In 2004, environmental campaigners including Greenpeace began publicising the problem of electronic waste. Some firms were more sympathetic than others – in 2005 Steve Jobs described criticism of Apple's green record as "bullshit" – campaigners decided to put as much pressure on Apple as possible. The Green My Apple campaign urged Apple customers and shareholders to put pressure on the firm to clean up its act.
Tom Dowdall is the co-ordinator of Greenpeace's Toxic Tech campaign. "The most important factor was probably the huge, enthusiastic response of Mac fans," he recalls. "The site received over 690,000 visitors, 50,000 people wrote directly to Steve and thousands of Mac-related blogs, from the biggest to the smallest individual Mac user blogs, linked to the campaign." As Dowdall explains, campaigners felt that Apple would listen to Mac owners. "Apple customers did speak up, and that's maybe what changed Steve's mind."
Was Jobs' cry of "bullshit" justified? Were campaigners picking on Apple unfairly? To an extent, yes. Campaigns need to generate publicity, and "Green My Apple" generated headlines that "Green My Acer" simply wouldn't.
Then again, Apple wasn't entirely blameless. While Apple was gradually becoming greener, it was only doing so when and where laws compelled it to – and as Ted Smith, chair of the ComputerTakeBack Campaign pointed out, "They [were] out there lobbying against recycling bills supported by Dell and HP, they have a limited takeback programme that they don't promote and that's hard to use, and they refuse to commit to a timeline for phasing out toxic materials… maybe 'think different' really means 'don't think about it'."
There was also an inconvenient truth. While other technology firms might have poorer environmental records than Apple, they didn't have Al Gore on the board of directors. The firm's board voted "unanimously" against two shareholder resolutions on environmental issues in 2007 – which means Gore voted against resolutions that the TakeBack Campaign described as "very mild". As campaign vicechair Robin Schneider put it: "how can he be against making improvements in recycling and phasing out toxic materials? We expect more from someone who is such a strong leader on global warming."
In May 2007 Steve Jobs posted an open letter – A Greener Apple – on the Apple website. In typical Jobs style, he took swipes at the competition and showed some frustration at the way Apple had been singled out, but he made some key promises. Jobs pledged to eliminate the use of arsenic in displays by the end of 2008 and to eventually switch to LED backlighting, eliminating the use of mercury from displays.
He also pledged to remove PVC and Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) from the entire Apple product line by the end of this year. Most importantly, Jobs said: "Apple is already a leader in innovation and engineering, and we are applying these same talents to become an environmental leader."
Since then, Jobs has stuck to his word. Unnecessary packaging has been eliminated, Macs are more environmentally friendly than before and the new MacBooks are the greenest laptops Apple has ever made.
In his 2008 environmental update, Jobs notes that Apple's recycling has increased 57%, that the firm offers "takeback" recycling schemes in 95% of the countries where Apple products are sold, that the firm is making efforts to reduce not just the carbon footprint of its manufacturing processes but the energy consumption of its products too.
What you can do
Apple could make the greenest electronics on the planet, but if its customers don't go green too then it's all pretty pointless. As you'd expect, being a green Apple owner isn't particularly difficult: keep stuff that works, pass it on if you don't need it, and recycle it when it dies.
Apple has two kinds of recycling programmes in the UK. If you buy online – or if you haven't bought anything and just want to recycle old kit – then the UK distributor takeback scheme means you should take your hardware to a council recycling point. You can find the nearest one at www.recycle-more.co.uk.
Alternatively, when you buy something from an Apple Store you can recycle your old kit by taking it to the Store within 30 days of purchase. In some cases you'll even get a discount, so for example if you recycle an old iPod (except the shuffle) you'll get 10% off a new one.
Apple Stores won't just recycle Apple hardware: if you're buying a Mac to replace an old Windows box, you can recycle that. However, the Apple website is a little bit confusing, because it says that you can recycle "one equivalent piece of electronic equipment" by taking it to the Apple store. But what does "one" mean? Is it one item, such as the CPU, or is it one system, which would include cables, keyboard and monitor? We have no idea and the Apple website doesn't say – so we decided to ask our friendly neighbourhood Apple Store.
Nicola was happy to help. We told her that we'd like to buy a shiny new iMac and dump a decrepit Dell desktop, but we were not sure what we could actually recycle. Is it the whole kit and caboodle, cables and all, or can we only recycle the actual PC bit? Nicola wasn't sure, so she double-checked. Bring in the whole thing, cables and all, she told us. Can we bring the monitor? Yep, that too. Bring everything!
Inevitably, there are limits to what your local Apple Store will take. Cracked monitors, extra batteries, uninterruptible power supplies and nuclear waste are no-nos, and Apple's definition of "equivalent" doesn't include "microwave ovens or washing machines".
Everything's gone green
Apple has delivered exactly what Greenpeace asked for: a greener Apple. So the protesters have stopped protesting, the emailers have stopped emailing, and every time you buy a Mac a polar bear bursts into tears of joy.
Well, not quite. Apple has made huge steps, but going green is a long process – and like all PC manufacturers, Apple can do even more to lessen the environmental impact of its products. One of the problems is that the electronics industry thrives on making us buy new stuff, and Apple is particularly good at it – which is why people with perfectly good first-generation iPhones were queuing outside Apple stores to get the iPhone 3G on the day of release.
As Dowdall points out, "The marketing approach… to always ditch the old and buy the latest new version of a gadget you already have is not sustainable. A greener approach would be to offer hardware upgrades to existing gadgets instead of a whole new model, or to change to a leasestyle arrangement where customers buy a service instead of a product."
Cutting down on packaging and removing hazardous chemicals is a big step in the right direction, but campaigners would like to see even bigger changes. "Apple is leading the way among PC makers in eliminating toxic chemicals," says Dowdall.
"However, they still have much to do on improving recycling, their climate change policy and energy use. Clear leadership on recycling would be offering a free global takeback scheme. Clear leadership on climate issues would be Apple committing to cuts in its greenhouse gas emissions – like HP has – and increasing the total amount of renewable energy it uses globally – like Nokia has."
We can play our part, too. "Don't be afraid to ask for continuous improvement on environmental policies," Dowdall says. "That's a powerful way to push for better corporate practice." Steve Jobs has already pledged to make Apple an "environmental leader". We can make sure he sticks to it.
First published in MacFormat, Issue 204
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