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HP defends environmental record ahead of protest

PC maker refutes claims by Greenpeace that it lags behind rest of electronics industry in curbing use of toxic materials.

Hewlett-Packard on Monday defended its efforts to curb e-waste ahead of a planned Greenpeace International protest at its headquarters.

The environmental activist group plans to demonstrate Tuesday at HP's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., to pressure the company into phasing out the use of potentially toxic materials in its products. Specifically, the group is demanding that HP set timelines for ridding its computers, printers and other electronics of brominated flame retardants and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic.

The group has singled out HP because it's one of the largest PC manufacturers in the world and because its machines contain higher levels of hazardous materials--specifically a flame retardant known as TBBA--than rivals' devices, said Iza Kruszewska, a Greenpeace campaigner against toxics.

"Other companies have gone much further," Kruszewska said. "We'd expect (HP) to be more ahead of the game."

In rebuttal, HP executives said in a conference call Monday that the company has made strides in removing unwanted materials, including PVC, from its products. The company began removing ozone-depleting chemicals from its products and factories in the 1980s.

"There are technical barriers to removing this from our entire product line," said David Lear, HP vice president of corporate, social and environmental responsibility. "You have to balance with science behind it and the costs."

Lear also cited the company's efforts to reduce e-waste through recycling obsolete gear. The company pledged last year to recycle 1 billion pounds of electronics by the end of 2007. Ironically, efforts at recycling have created new problems because of dangerous work conditions at many overseas recycling plants, according to Greenpeace. The group issued a report earlier this year condemning rampant environmental contamination and health hazards in places where obsolete electronic gear is disassembled and scavenged.

According to a United Nations' Environment Program report, between 20 million and 50 million tons of e-waste is produced worldwide annually. , 4 million PCs are discarded each year, the report said.

The Greenpeace protest at HP will follow several other such demonstrations. The group delivered a truckload of waste to HP's offices in Geneva in May, calling the company a "toxic tech giant," according to reports. Last year, Greenpeace Netherlands blocked the entrance to HP's Dutch offices in the city of Utrecht over its use of TBBA.