How Green Is Apple? A Half-Bitten Look at the Past Decade

A short eco-history of the tech behemoth you hate to love.

Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.
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When it comes to being green, Apple's record is half-bitten. (Photo: Niffylux.com)

I've gotta be honest here: Apple is annoying.

No, not because I'm still reluctantly using my aging, spiderweb-cracked 3GS, waiting like millions of others for the release of the iPhone 5. (Has it been months? Years? Will it ever come out?)

It's because I was planning to write a scathing report of the hydra-headed technology juggernaut, and I can't. Despite the secrecy of their day-to-day operations, when it comes to their environmental practices, Apple has been surprisingly open and transparent.

Sure, making Macbooks, iPods, iPhones, and now, iPads, isn't the best thing for the planet. But it's hard to argue that Apple isn't, at the very least, open about it. They've proudly put up infographics of their total carbon footprint, energy efficiency, and environmental report for anyone to see on their extensive Environment page, and for the most part, their efforts are impressive.

But as they say in Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility, and we shouldn't congratulate corporations for adapting to a more socially-responsible corporate climate. Media-savvy Apple is going to do whatever they can to save face in front of the Green Goblin, and that's right where we want them.

Here's a quick look at some of Apple's more notable goofs and gaffes as they've risen from industry laggard to leader in the Jobs 2.0 era.

2000 - Apple Sours at Massachussetts Dumping Ban 

With toxic e-waste increasingly becoming a problem, Masschussetts took an early lead in the new millenium by banning the dumping of computer screens, TVs, and other glass-screened devices in their landfills and incinerators. 

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Throw away this classic? Never. (Photo: studioedirisa.com)

"It's a good public health and environmental move," said John McNabb, solid waste removal policy director at Clean Water Action of New England. "We hope that it is replicated nationwide."

Among the many solutions proposed to handle the accelerating rate of product disposal was the revolutionary idea that manufacturers take back their devices once obsolete—a plan that Apple bristled at. 

"I don't think that's realistic," said Alex Rosen, spokesman for Apple. "That's about as realistic as Detroit being responsible for taking its cars back. There are a lot of uses for computers, Macs and PCs."

2004 - Apple Trails HP, Dell, IBM in Environmental Ratings

In a study by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition of computer maker's environmental programs, Apple came in behind most of its competitors, scoring a "pathetic" 37 behind HP's 54, Dell's 52, NEC's 49, and IBM's 47 on the ratings. 

“Nobody is getting what any schoolchild would recognize as a C grade,”  said Ted Smith, executive director of the study. “Even the best companies are recycling only a very small percentage of computers—that’s the bottom line. They all have a long way to go.”

2005 - Apple Sulks, Announces Recycling Program

Bowing to months of pressure from environmental activists, Apple announces their first recycling program, allowing consumers to bring their useless one-year-old iPods back to the store.

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How many of you actually recycled this thing? (Photo: ipodhistory.com)

“Customers can bring iPods they no longer want to any of Apple’s 100 retail stores in the U.S. for free environmentally friendly disposal, and those who drop off an iPod, iPod mini or iPod photo will receive a 10 percent discount on the purchase of a new iPod that day,” said the company in a statement. 

While Apple admitted the presence of "a small amount of lead" in their products, the company bristled at the Silcon Toxics Coalition's designation of the iPod as a "time-bomb for our health and environment."

“To call the iPod an environmental time bomb is just inexcusable,” said Steve Jobs at a shareholders meeting.

2005 - Apple Makes EPA's List for Clean Air Companies

Apple gets a rare boost of good publicity by sneaking onto the EPA's list of the top 20 companies promoting clean commuting and environmental practices. 

"The companies recognized today are setting the pace for all employers," said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. "Commuter benefits are smart for the environment, smart for employees and smart for the bottom line."

Led for the second straight year by squeaky clean chipmaker Intel, the rest of the top five was rounded out by Qualcomm, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and Microsoft. 

"It's important to be a good corporate citizen and pull our weight," said Mark Gorman, commute reductions manager at Intel. "The way things have gone, transportation has become a huge issue, no matter where you go."

2007 - Greenpeace Slams iPhone

In a report by environmental activist group Greenpeace, Apple is taken to task for trailing behind competitors in their use of toxic substances like brominated flame retardants, phthalates plasticisers, and chloride in their fancy new mobile phones.

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Like a siren, the original iPhone was beautiful but deadly. (Photo: cruisemarketwatch.com)

"Steve Jobs has missed the call on making the iPhone his first step towards greening Apple's products," said Zeina Alhajj, Greenpeace International toxics campaigner. "It seems that Apple is far from leading the way for a green electronics industry, as competitors like Nokia already sell mobile phones free of PVC."

Even worse, the Center of Environmental Health was already making plans to sue the phone manufacturer, saying that the levels of phthalates in the new phone violates California law.

"There is no reason to have these potentially hazardous chemicals in iPhones," said Michael Green, executive director of CEH. "We expect Apple to reformulate their products to make them safer from cradle to grave so they don't pose a threat to consumers, workers or the environment."

As for Jobs, he was none too impressed, telling picketing activists to "get out of the computer business" and "go save some whales."

2007 - Jobs has "Jerry Maguire" Moment

No doubt fed up with all the antics bad publicity surrounding his shiny new toy, Steve Jobs issued an 1,880-word manifesto later that year that outlined—nay, pledged—to fundamentally change the way Apple approached the environment.

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"You want the environment? I'll give you the environment!" (Photo: Reuters/Robert Galbraith)

Among the highlights? Apple's plans to phase out toxic chemicals like lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, and brominated flame retardants. And along the way, Jobs couldn't resist taking an e-swipe at the competition.  

"Upon investigating Apple's current practices and progress towards these goals, I was surprised to learn that in many cases Apple is ahead of, or will soon be ahead of, most of its competitors in these areas," Jobs wrote. 

"Whatever other improvements we need to make, it is certainly clear that we have failed to communicate the things that we are doing well."

2008 - New MacBook Air Fails to Impress

Desperately seeking the approval of his environmental hecklers, Jobs releases the brand-new MacBook Air, featuring the company's first mercury and arsenic-free display and significantly reduced levels of BFRs and PVC plastic. 

Unfortunately, the measures were not enough to impress tough-to-please Greenpeacers. 

"Apple is getting greener, but not green enough," said Rick Hind, head of Greenpeace's toxics campaign. "The MacBook Air has less toxic PVC plastic and less toxic BFRs, but it could have zero and that would make Apple an eco-leader."

Others, however, like Care2′s Annie B. Bond, applauded the efforts.

“I am glad that Apple is tackling reducing heavy metals in the electronics industry,” said the green living expert. “The fact that their MacBook Air has a mercury-free display and arsenic-free glass is a great step forward.”

2009 - Apple Wins Over Greenpeace

Frustrated with disagreements over environmental policy, Apple resigns its membership from the Chamber of Commerce, winning praise from an unexpected ally—Greenpeace. 

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Greenpeace's new enemy no. 1? Nokia. (Photo: greenpeace.org)

"Apple has stormed out of the biggest lobby group in the United States," said the organization on their website. "At issue is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's use of funds to oppose climate change legislation. Apple has done the right thing, and IBM and Microsoft should think different too."

The watchdog group went even further the next year, praising the tech company's quick environmental turnaround in their annual hit-list of green-friendly companies.

"Last year Apple cleared the final hurdle in eliminating toxic PVC (vinyl) plastic, making it the first company to completely eliminate hazardous BFRs and PVC in its computer systems," they said in their announcement.

"Pressure from thousands of Apple lovers and advocates turned the company green in the time it took to go from iMac G5 (2006) to iMac Aluminum (2009)."

2010 - Heavy Metal in Beijing

And then, there was China.

First came the disturbing news of a slew of suicides at Foxconn, the Taiwanese-based company that Apple employs to manufacture their iPods and iPhones on the mainland.

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Students demonstrate against Apple in a street performance. (Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip)

Then came accusations that the lead and cadmium used to make the batteries and circuit boards were running off into the water supply, resulting in more than 4,000 people with unsafe levels of lead in their blood.

All of it came to a head after the New Year (ours, not theirs), when a report representing a year's worth of work by 30 Chinese NGOs singled out the tech giant for "dodging" questions on their environmental record. 

"Apple has broken its promise on three aspects of supply-chain social responsibilities," states the report, which was authored chiefly by Beijing's Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs.

"You should educate yourself," the report quoted Steve Jobs as saying in response to a question about social responsibility. "We do more than any other company on the planet."

2011 - Space: The Final Frontier

So what do you do when you've come back from the digital dead, enjoyed a decade-long renaissance, and established yourself as an industry leader in every sense of the word? 

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"Someday, this will double as a landing pad for my iShuttle." (Photo: luxedb.com)

You strong-arm Cupertino into letting you build a spaceship-like behemoth of a campus, that's what. 

"We do have a shot at building the best office building in the world," said Jobs with typical bravado, adding that there won't be a straight piece of glass in it. "Architecture students will come here to see this.”

And why not? Apple, after all, does more than any other company on the planet. And there's nothing greener than building a 14,000 person, donut-shaped office building visible from space. 

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