Jobs defends Apple's environmental record

Troy Wolverton
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. - His company under attack for its environmental record, Apple CEO Steve Jobs on Wednesday chalked the issue up to a PR problem - but did vow to make changes.

In a letter published on Apple's Web site, Jobs reported on the company's efforts to encourage the recycling of its products and to phase out certain toxic chemicals from its products and manufacturing processes. Apple had already committed to phasing out many toxic chemicals and had been ahead of the industry in doing so, Jobs said.

But Jobs announced the company would go further than it had previously announced to recycle products and eliminate chemicals such as mercury. The company also plans to update consumers and investors about its environmental policies, he said.

"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," Jobs said in the letter. "Unfortunately this policy has left our customers, shareholders, employees and the industry in the dark about Apple's desires and plans to become greener.

"Our stakeholders deserve and expect more from us, and they're right to do so."

Indeed, investors are slated to vote next week on two shareholder-backed environmental proposals that call on Apple to report on its so-called e-cycling efforts and the steps it's taking to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals.

The proposals followed a report from environmental group Greenpeace in December that ranked Apple last among 14 major manufacturers for its seeming lack of progress with e-cycling and eliminating chemicals.

On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being an ideally "green" company, Apple would now get about a 5 after Jobs' letter, up from 2.7 in December, said Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace's toxics campaign. The company still needs to follow up on its plans to eliminate certain chemicals and could do a better job with its recycling, he said.

"It shows progress by Apple," Hind said. "But it also shows how they can do better."

In order to cut down on mercury, Apple plans to move as soon as "technically and economically feasible" to LCD displays with backlights that use LEDs rather than fluorescent lamps, which contain the chemical.

Meanwhile, the company plans to eliminate polyvinyl chloride and brominated flame retardants - two particularly notorious chemicals - from its products by the end of 2008, Jobs said. That's a full year ahead of Dell and Lenovo, he noted.

"We're delighted that he made the announcement today," said Sanford Lewis, an attorney who represents Trillium Asset Management, which proposed that Apple report on its steps to eliminate its use of toxic chemicals. "We hoped he would beat the schedule of Dell and he has. In that sense, it's quite a breakthrough."

However, Lewis said Trillium wouldn't withdraw its proposal.

"There's still a need for a broader policy commitment to safer materials of all kinds," Lewis said.

Apple spokesman Steve Dowling said the company is still opposed to the two environmental proposals.

In terms of e-cycling, Apple currently allows consumers to recycle their iPods at any of its 150 U.S. retail stores. The company will expand that program to its 20 international stores this summer, Jobs said. Additionally, the company plans to offer free shipping for consumers who wish to mail their old iPods back to the company.

In 2006, Apple recycled 13 million pounds of electronic waste, equivalent to about 9.5 percent of the weight of all the products it sold in 1999, Jobs said in the letter. In contrast, Hewlett-Packard and Dell are recycling about 10 percent a year, he said. Apple hopes to get that figure up to around 30 percent by 2010, Jobs said.

That's a laudable goal, Conrad MacKerron, corporate social responsibility program director at San Francisco's As You Sow Foundation, said in a statement. But MacKerron, whose group helped put together the proposal on e-cycling, urged Apple to follow Dell's lead in encouraging consumers to recycle their old computers and electronics equipment.

Dell, for instance, will take back any of its old equipment from consumers for free, he noted. Apple generally will only take back its computers for free if consumers buy a new Apple computer through its retail stores or Web site.

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