Apple to Begin Recycling Customers’ Old Macs

appledemoAssociated Press

Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL) will soon adopt an environmentally friendly twist for buyers of new Macintosh computers by offering to recycle their old computers for free.

The Cupertino-based company said its expanded take-back offer will begin in June. U.S. customers who buy a new Mac through the Apple store online or any Apple retail store will receive free shipping and recycling of their old machines.

Currently, Apple retail stores accept old iPod music players for free recycling. In addition, Cupertino residents may drop off old Macs at company headquarters, while others pay a $30 recycling fee to drop off or ship their computers.

Environmental advocacy organizations that have criticized Apple’s recycling initiatives in the past applauded the computer maker’s expanded program, saying it is now closer in line with those of other major PC makers, notably Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) and Dell Inc. (DELL).

But the environmental groups contend Apple still needs to do more and will present a proposal at Apple’s shareholder meeting Thursday calling for the company to study ways to improve recycling.

China’s toxic junkyard

Electronic-waste-in-ChinaFort Worth Star-Telegram
Tim Johnson

When discarded computers vanish from desktops around the world, they often end up in Guiyu, which may be the electronic-waste capital of the globe. The city is a sprawling computer slaughterhouse. Instead of offal and blood, its runoff includes toxic metals and acids. Some 60,000 laborers toil here at primitive e-waste recycling — if it can be called that — even as the work imperils their health.

Computer carcasses line the streets, awaiting dismemberment. Circuit boards and hard drives lie in huge mounds. At thousands of workshops, laborers shred and grind plastic casings into particles, snip cables and pry chips from circuit boards. Workers pass the boards through red-hot kilns or acid baths to dissolve lead, silver and other metals from the digital detritus. The acrid smell of burning solder and melting plastic fills the air.

What occurs is more akin to e-waste scavenging. Though China bans imports of electronic waste, its factories clamor for raw materials — even those yanked from the guts of discarded computers — and ill-informed workers seek out computer-recycling jobs. So the ban is ignored, and the waste comes in torrents. Under the guise of “recycling,” U.S. e-waste brokers ship discarded computers and dump an environmental problem on China.

In the United States, consumers, manufacturers and retailers are only beginning to pay attention to the cost of safely ending the lives of electronics. By next year, obsolete computers amassed in the United States will number 500 million, according to the U.S. National Safety Council.

“People just don’t know what to do with them,” said Jim Puckett, the coordinator of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based group that advises consumers about sustainable methods to dispose of e-waste.

Hewlett-Packard of Palo Alto, Calif., committed this year to eliminate a range of hazardous chemicals from its products and has helped lobby for state laws requiring manufacturers to take back old equipment.

Still, a lot of e-waste from the United States continues to seep into China and West Africa, where corruption is large and smuggling rampant. The U.S. government doesn’t ban, or even monitor, e-waste exports. What’s more, the Environmental Protection Agency has no certification process for electronic-waste recyclers. Any company can claim it recycles waste, even if all it does is export it.

Guiyu (pronounced GWAY-yoo), a few hours’ drive northeast of Hong Kong, is by far China’s biggest e-waste scrap heap. The city comprises 21 villages with 5,500 family workshops handling e-waste. According to the local government Web site, city businesses process 1.5 million tons of e-waste a year, pulling in $75 million in revenue. As much as 80 percent of it comes from overseas.

City officials are proud of the e-waste industry but sensitive about its reputation as a dirty business that feeds off smuggled waste and abuses labor rights. Journalists who probe quickly find themselves detained by local thugs or police officers, and their digital photographs or video footage erased. One recent visitor was stopped within two hours of arriving and ordered to leave.

“They don’t want the media . . . to write articles about the negative aspect of the Guiyu area,” Wu said. “[They think] maybe the central government will punish them.”

Local bosses pay little regard to workers’ health or to regulations that prohibit dumping acid baths into rivers and venting toxic fumes. In one district of Guiyu, a migrant worker stood amid piles of capacitors and circuit boards as fellow workers with pliers tore off soldered metal parts and burned electronic components over braziers to determine their content.

“If you burn it, you can tell what kind of plastic it is,” said the man, who gave only his surname, Wang. “They smell different. There are many kinds of plastic, probably 60 or 70 types.”

An average computer yields only $1.50 to $2 worth of commodities such as shredded plastic, copper and aluminum, according to a report in November by the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog arm of Congress.

E-waste recyclers in the United States can’t cover their costs with such low yields, especially while respecting environmental regulations. So they charge an average of 50 cents a pound for taking in old computers, about $20 to $28 per unit. At that price, experts say, recycling can be done safely and profitably. But some U.S. brokers then ship the e-waste abroad for greater profits.

Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this article.

Questions and answers

Q. Why should I be concerned about what happens to my old computer once I erase my personal information?

A. Computers and other electronics contain numerous hazardous materials in the circuitry, monitors and plastic casings.

Monitors: Between 4 and 8 pounds of lead, which can be toxic if ingested. When buried in a landfill, it can leach into groundwater.

Electronics systems and circuit boards: Small amounts of tin, copper, gold, palladium and antimony. Trace amounts of beryllium, mercury and cadmium, all heavy metals and harmful — sometimes carcinogenic — if ingested. Plastic housings: Presence of flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, a toxic substance that builds up over time in human bodies.

Q. What is the federal government doing about exports of e-waste?

A. Nothing. The United States is the only major nation that hasn’t ratified the 1994 Basel Convention, which bans exports of hazardous electronic waste. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency has no certification process for electronic-waste recyclers. Any company can claim that it “recycles” e-waste, when all it does is export it.

Q. Where can I get information about responsible e-waste recycling in my area?

A. Many states have recyclers who’ve signed pledges not to export and dump old computers. Here are Web sites to show where they’re available:

Computer Take Back Campaign,
Basel Action Network,

HP is pushing states to force recycling of TVs and computers. Here’s why

hp-recycleBusiness Week
Lorraine Woellert

A few years ago, when environmentalists in Washington State began agitating to rid local dumps of toxic old computers and televisions, they found an unexpected ally: Hewlett-Packard Co. Teaming up with greens and retailers, HP took on IBM, and several major TV manufacturers, which were resisting recycling programs because of the costs.

Aided by HP’s energetic lobbying, the greens persuaded state lawmakers to adopt a landmark program that forces electronics companies to foot the bill for recycling their old equipment. “This bill puts our market-based economy to work for the environment,” said Washington Governor Christine O. Gregoire as she signed the plan into law on Mar. 24.

The movement to recycle electronic refuse, or “e-waste,” is spreading across the nation, and so is HP’s clout. The company helped the greens win a big battle in Maine in 2004 when the state passed the nation’s first e-waste “take-back” law. Washington followed suit. Now, Minnesota and New Jersey are preparing to act, and 19 other states are weighing legislation. Activists hope to banish high-tech junk from landfills and scrub the nation’s air and water of lead, chromium, mercury, and other toxins prevalent in digital debris.

HP’s efforts have made it the darling of environmentalists. They say take-back laws are more effective at getting digital junk recycled than point-of-sale fees, which tax consumer electronics products to fund state-run recycling programs. They’re also pleased because effective programs in the U.S. reduce the likelihood that the products will be shipped to less developed countries and disassembled under unsafe conditions.

But HP’s agenda isn’t entirely altruistic. Take-back laws play to the company’s strategic strengths. For decades the computer maker has invested in recycling infrastructure, a move that has lowered its production costs, given it a leg up in the secondary market for equipment, and allowed it to build a customer service out of “asset management,” which includes protection of data that might remain on discarded gear.

In 2005, HP recycled more than 70,000 tons of product, the equivalent of about 10% of company sales and a 15% increase from the year before. And it collected more than 2.5 million units (in excess of 25,000 tons) of hardware to be refurbished for resale or donation.

No other electronics maker has a resale business on this scale. But the others may soon wish to emulate HP. “We see legislation coming,” says David Lear, HP’s vice-president for corporate, social, and environmental responsibility. “A lot of companies haven’t stepped up to the plate…. If we do this right, it becomes an advantage to us.”

For television makers, on the other hand, take-back laws are terrifying. Following the lead of PC makers, they’re pushing consumers to replace their bulky television sets with flat-screen models, many of them primed for high- definition viewing. As a result, in the next three years, Americans are expected to throw out more than 550 million analog TV sets and computer monitors that contain thousands of tons of lead. The last thing these companies want are coast-to-coast take-back laws.

More than a dozen consumer electronics companies, including Panasonic, Sony, and Philips, have formed a group called the Manufacturers Coalition for Responsible Recycling. Backed by IBM, Canon and Apple, they have dispatched lobbyists to statehouses across the nation, pushing bills that mirror California’s somewhat weak recycling program. Instead of forcing manufacturers to take back waste, they would impose a levy of up to $10 on sales of products to help states cover recycling costs without burdening equipment makers.

The e-waste skirmish is part of an important new front in global environmentalism called product stewardship. Proponents argue that a company’s responsibility for what it sells should include collection and disassembly at the end of the product’s life cycle. As a slogan, product stewardship has been around since the Earth Days of the 1970s, but it is now a serious force in the auto and electronics sectors of Japan and Europe. The movement is likely to broaden in the U.S. as well. Several states are strong-arming auto makers into using less toxic parts, persuading thermostat manufacturers to fund bounties for the return of old mercury-laden devices, and pushing pharmaceutical giants to redesign packaging to reduce waste and accept unused medications for disposal.

But manufacturers have many concerns, including the fact that take-back laws such as Maine’s allocate costs based on the weight of the junk consumers return. Consider the implications for big picture tubes: A company like LG Electronics, which owns the Zenith brand, could end up being responsible for heaps of old Zenith TVs, even though LG’s market share is relatively small. And IBM, which has abandoned the PC market, might still be forced to recycle millions of machines bearing its logo. “They’re really discriminating against legacy manufacturers,” says coalition spokesman David A. Thompson, director of Panasonic Corp.’s Corporate Environmental Dept. “New market entrants have no waste stream. They’re getting a free ride in Maine and Washington.”

Bruised Apple

Environmentalists’ biggest disappointment has been Apple Computer Inc. The company’s progressive image, loyal customers, and retail network make it a natural for a take-back program. Yet Apple has fought such programs, and it lags behind HP and Dell Inc. in voluntary recycling. During Maine’s legislative fight, “they were doing more than any other manufacturer to fight the bill,” says Jon Hinck, staff attorney for Maine’s Natural Resources Council.

When shareholders at last year’s annual meeting hit Apple over the Maine bill, CEO Steven P. Jobs publicly dismissed the gripe with a barnyard profanity. This year, green groups have put a resolution on the agenda of the Apr. 27 shareholder meeting that directs Apple to study how to boost recycling. “They are laggards in a number of ways on the issue of e-waste. It’s come to the point where we need to have the company confronted,” says Conrad MacKerron, director of the corporate social responsibility program at As You Sow Foundation, a green advocacy group that pushed the resolution.

Apple says critics ignore the company’s efforts to use recyclable and clean materials in its products. It has cut lead use and says that, by weight, 90% of Apple computers can be recycled. Their sleek designs and spare packaging also mean less waste, says Chief Operating Officer Timothy D. Cook. “It’s important to look at the whole of the process,” he says, “not just one part.” Cook also argues that take-back programs overlook a key fact: “Recycling is a responsibility of the person who makes the product, the people who use the product, the people who sell the product, and the government.”

If Apple hopes to catch up with HP, it might have to think harder about the first part of that sentence.