Activists target Apple’s iPods

Apple Computer boss Steve Jobs angrily disputed claims by an environmental group called the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) during the company’s annual meeting on April 21. The coalition contended that iPods are “a time-bomb for our health and environment because of the toxic metals that will either go into incinerators or landfills.”

Some SVTC protestors outside the company’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters dramatized their concerns by dressing up in costumes representing Apple iPods and hurling themselves into trash cans.

Jobs responded that his company was the first to offer a recycling program in 2001 and that the company has recycled more than 1,500 tons of electronic waste since then.

Jobs said Apple has never dumped hazardous eWaste in the United States nor overseas. “The only materials we ship overseas are ground-up plastics used to make new recycled plastics, and a small number of logic boards to a company in Sweden, which recovers precious metals from them,” Jobs said. “These are good things.”

Jobs was especially intense in his defense of the iPod. He acknowledged the popular iPods contain a “small amount of lead,” which the company is working to phase out. But, he said, it’s a minuscule amount, compared with the amounts found in computer monitors.

“To call the iPod an environmental time bomb is just inexcusable,” Jobs said.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition has been pressuring the Cupertino, Calif., computer maker for months to produce non-toxic products and take a more aggressive role in recycling obsolete Apple computers, monitors and other electronics.

eWaste is a problem of increasing concern. Tons of computers, monitors, televisions and other electronic gizmos that contain hazardous chemicals may be poisoning people and ground water. Activists say the nation’s biggest environmental problem may be the smallest devices, and in late April they launched campaigns to increase awareness about recycling cell phones, music players, handheld gaming consoles and other electronics.

Frequently, smaller portable gadgets have batteries that are prohibitively expensive to replace. So consumers in affluent countries simply toss them in the trash.

“They’re small and lightweight, and the electronics industry markets them as disposable. Whenever you upgrade your (wireless) service, you can get a new flip phone for $50 and they never tell you to recycle the old one,” said Kimberlee Dinn, campaign director for Washington, D.C.-based EARTHWORKS, a nonprofit organization that studies the environmental impact of mining, digging, and drilling natural resources.

The biggest offenders are cell phones, said Dinn, because they pose a hazardous “double whammy” to the environment.

To build them, gold and other metals must be extracted from mines in western states, as well as Peru, Turkey, Tanzania, and other countries. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks hard-rock mining as the nation’s leading toxic polluter.

Then, at the end of their life cycles, many phones end up in landfills, where they may leak lead and other heavy metals that could pollute nearby ground water.

Americans have about 500 million obsolete, broken or otherwise unused cell phones, and about 130 million more are added each year–the equivalent of 65,000 tons of waste, according to the EPA.

Less than 2 percent are recycled–usually refurbished and resold to consumers in Latin America and Asia, or disassembled for gold and other parts, according to EARTHWORKS.

It’s unclear what happens to the remainder, said Dinn, whose organization launched a recycling campaign to coincide with Earth Day on April 22. Activists asked consumers to download and print postage-paid labels and send unused phones to the Atlanta-based recycling organization CollectiveGood. The goal is to collect at least 1 million cell phones this year.

“We think a majority of those phones are waiting around in people’s desk drawers,” said Dinn, who came up with 30 unused cell phones in a recent sweep of the group’s eight-person office.

Environmentalists are encouraged by legislation passed by the European Union, which, starting in July 2006, will prohibit new cell phones sold in any EU country from containing lead and several other toxins. Also in July 2006, California will require all cell phone retailers to have an in-store recycling programs.

But cell phone initiatives may not be enough to stem overall eWaste.

U.S. consumers retire or replace roughly 133,000 personal computers per day, according to research firm Gartner Inc. According to a study commissioned by SVTC roughly half of all U.S. households have working but unused consumer electronics products.

After a campaign that resulted in significant improvements to the recycling program of Dell Inc., many eWaste activists turned their attention to Apple.

CEO Jobs and Apple board members, including former Vice President Al Gore, have each received at least 400 faxes about the company’s contribution to eWaste, said Robin Schneider, executive director of the Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Apple charges most American consumers $30 to recycle unused or broken computers and laptops. And though Apple doesn’t have a specific iPod recycling program, a service promoted by its corporate Web site sells consumers shipping labels and packaging materials for sending equipment to recycling vendors.

In January, Apple agreed to help sponsor an industry initiative launched by eBay Inc. and Intel Corp., that created an informational Web site to help motivate Americans to resell, donate or recycle used gadgets. Gateway Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., International Business Machines Corp. and Ingram Micro Inc. are also participating, as well as the U.S. Postal Service, which in some cases will help deliver PCs to eBay drop-off locations or recycling centers.

The popularity of the iPod and iPod Mini–as well as more affordable gadgets such as the pack-of-gum-sized iPod Shuffle–makes Apple an obvious target for environmental activists. Apple reportedly shipped 5.3 million iPods last quarter, a nearly sevenfold increase from the same period last year.

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