At last Tuesday's laptop event on the Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif., the environment got a lot of attention. CEO Steve Jobs, who has been pushing for a "greener Apple" for months, flatly declared that the new Mac laptops, with their unibody aluminum construction and less toxic parts, "are the industry's greenest notebooks."
The verdict from the planet's leading environmental group, Greenpeace, is a qualified yes. "Compared to where Apple was before Tuesday," said Casey Harrell, Greenpeace International's toxics campaigner, "its laptops are definitely better. That in and of itself is a good thing. But not all toxic pieces have been eliminated yet."
Harrell said Greenpeace had been hoping Apple would be the first to announce a laptop manufactured without any polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or brominated flame retardant (BFR) materials. Both produce toxic chemicals when burned, which frequently occurs when computer parts are shipped overseas for disposal.
"They fell slightly short of that goal," Harrell said. "They didn't quite get the PVCs out of the external power cord. If Apple can achieve that, then we could unequivocally say that they've put the rest of the computer industry on notice that these materials can be completely eliminated."
In a press release Tuesday, Apple said it did eliminate all PVCs on internal cables in its MacBook laptops, and avoided the use of BFRs altogether. In addition, Apple said, the new MacBooks meet Energy Star 4.0, EPEAT Gold, and RoHS environmental standards.
Harrell predicted that Apple's ranking on Greenpeace's environmental scale will rise in part because of the reduction in the use of toxic chemicals and because the new MacBooks use significantly less packaging.
Apple said it measures its recycling performance by a standard first suggested by Dell: The percentage of material sold (by weight) collected in recycling. In 2007, Apple recycled 18.4 percent of the material it sold; it expects to recycle more than 28 percent this year.
2009 Green Goal
Harrell said Apple issued another less-publicized press release on Tuesday that talked about the company's environmental plans. Among other things, he noted, the company is planning to completely eliminate all PVC and BFR components by the end of this year.
If Apple is able to accomplish that, Harrell said, it would make a big difference in Greenpeace's campaign to persuade other computer manufacturers like Dell, Lenovo and HP to follow suit.
"It would allow us to switch the pressure to the other big notebook and desktop companies," Harrell said, "and say that your excuses are no longer valid. Most have said that they will phase out PVCs and BFRs by end of 2009, but if Apple can do it now, then you can, too."
The highly touted unibody construction that Apple unveiled made relatively little difference to Greenpeace's analysis, Harrell said, since the environmental group is much more concerned about the by-products produced by burning. But he agreed that to the extent that the new construction reduces the use of internal plastic components, it is beneficial.