Jobs pledges 'a greener Apple'

On the heels of criticism, Apple CEO lays out company's current and future plans to be more environmentally friendly.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read

After years of being tight-lipped about the company's environmental efforts, Apple CEO Steve Jobs posted an 1,880 word open letter online Wednesday about the computer maker's work to be green. Jobs cites criticism from environmental groups as his impetus to talk about Apple's initiatives in recycling old products and removing toxic chemicals from new products.

"It is generally not Apple's policy to trumpet our plans for the future...Unfortunately this policy has left our customers, shareholders, employees and the industry in the dark about Apple's desires and plans to become greener. So today we're changing our policy," Jobs writes.

Among the significant announcements:

• Jobs said that the company would transition away from the use of mercury, a toxic chemical that's polluting oceans, in its displays. It will stop making displays with fluorescent lamps, which contain mercury, and turn solely to the use of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) for illumination. (All iPod displays already use LEDs for illumination.) But Jobs said that Apple will rely on the LED industry to make that transition economically feasible.

"We plan to introduce our first Macs with LED backlight technology in 2007. Our ability to completely eliminate fluorescent lamps in all of our displays depends on how fast the LCD industry can transition to LED backlighting for larger displays. Apple plans to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of mercury by transitioning to LED backlighting for all displays when technically and economically feasible."

• Jobs said that Apple plans to completely eliminate the use of the toxic chemicals polyvinyl (PVC)--a plastic used to make computer parts--and brominated flame retardants in its products by the end of 2008.

"For the past several years, we have been developing alternative materials that can replace these chemicals without compromising the safety or quality of our products...We're close to eliminating these chemicals altogether," Jobs wrote.

(Jobs derides competitors for not committing to the elimination of these chemicals fast enough: Dell and Lenovo won't rid them from products until 2009 and HP hasn't stated its plans yet, Jobs wrote.)

• Jobs said that Apple has restricted use of toxic chemicals covered by the European Union's RoHS, or Restriction of Hazardous Substances, which bars use of hazardous substances including cadmium and hexavalent chromium. "Apple phased out these and many other chemicals several years ago through design innovations and the use of higher quality metals and plastics."

Jobs added: "A note of comparison--Some electronics companies, whose names you know, still rely on RoHS exemptions and use these toxic chemicals in their products today."

• Jobs said that Apple's 150 U.S. retail stores take back unwanted iPods free "for environmentally friendly disposal." "This summer we're expanding it to Apple retail stores worldwide, and we're also extending it to include free shipping from anywhere in the U.S."

Given this work and other recycling efforts, Jobs added: "By 2010, Apple may be recycling significantly more than either Dell or HP as a percentage of past sales weight."

At least one environmental group was encouraged that Apple set some public goals, but cautioned that the goals may not go far enough.

"This is a real step forward in at least some dialogue or transparency about what Apple's doing, so that's a good thing," said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Computer Takeback Campaign, which encourages the electronics industry to make their products more green.

Yet, she said, Apple doesn't deal with problems in its recycling program, apart from the iPod. Those problems include sending e-waste overseas for "recycling," which can mean that products from some electronics companies end up in a garbage pile that pollutes the environment and inhabitants, she said. Apple only committed to not sending old materials overseas for "disposal." "That can be a red flag," Kyle said.

Also, Apple does not take back old computer products sold through resellers, she said.

The timing is noteworthy because a coalition of environmental groups recently criticized Apple for opposing two green proposals, which would have been voted on at its annual shareholders meeting in May. The proposals would have held Apple responsible for strengthening its policies on toxic chemical use and recycling, including prohibiting the export of electronic waste to developing countries.

Jobs said that this policy was just the beginning for a greener Apple, and he apologized to customers for keeping them in the dark for so long.

"We will be providing updates of our efforts and accomplishments at least annually, most likely around this time of the year. And we plan to bring other environmental issues to the table as well, such as the energy efficiency of the products in our industry. We are also beginning to explore the overall carbon 'footprint' of our products, and may have some interesting data and issues to share later this year," Jobs wrote.