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How green is Apple now?

Apple says its new MacBooks are among the greenest in the industry. Environmental experts are pleased, but still have questions on recycling and on greenhouse gas emissions.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
4 min read

Apple touted its new MacBooks unveiled on Tuesday as the "industry's greenest notebooks," and on reduction of toxic chemicals they may be. But environmental groups point to greenhouse gas emissions and recycling as areas where more needs to be done.

The notebooks do seem to lead the industry in the elimination of toxic chemicals by having a Mercury-free LCD display, arsenic-free display glass, Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-free internal cables and components, and being free of brominated flame retardant (BFR), according to the Apple news release.

"This is greener than what Apple has been putting out," said Casey Harrell, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace International. "It's welcome news and it is also in line with their commitment to phase out all PVC and BFRs from all their products by the end of the year."

MacBook Pro environmental checklist
Steve Jobs goes through an environmental checklist for the MacBook Pro. James Martin/CNET News

But Harrell wondered why only the internal cables were PVC free and noted that Sony's Vaio has had PVC-free internal cables since last year.

"The elimination of BFR in the notebooks is definitely a bar raiser for the industry," he said. Other notebook makers have made similar commitments on PVC and BFR and "are making baby steps," he added.

In its "2008 Environmental Update" released Tuesday and signed by Chief Executive Steve Jobs, the company says it is removing all forms of bromine and chlorine from the product line, not just PVC and BFTs, and is in the final stages of certifying PVC-free power cables.

Along with the latest release, the pledges to remove Mercury from displays and arsenic from display glass, the release of an arsenic- and Mercury-free MacBook Air, BFR- and PVC-free iPods, and Mercury-free iPhone 3G display, "Apple's new product designs are on track to meet our 2008 year-end goal," the Update said.

Another criteria for green-ness is recyclability. The newest MacBooks also have a "highly" recyclable aluminum and glass enclosure.

"Sounds like Apple has made some significant steps since we first looked at their iPod several years ago" and its non-replaceable battery, said Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "It will be interesting to see how recyclable it is. Are they willing to have a more aggressive takeback program?"

Apple says its takeback programs are expanding, with its recycling volume growing 57 percent in 2007, and the recycling rate reaching 18.4 percent of sales, according to the Environmental Update. Apple provides takeback options for customers in 95 percent of the countries where its products are sold; offers free recycling of any manufacturer's computer or monitor if it is replaced with an Apple product, takes back any make or model of cell phone and does not ship waste from its U.S. recycling program outside North America and processes products in the country or region in which they are collected, Apple's recycling Web page says.

With Al Gore being on Apple's board you'd expect the company to take the lead on policies affecting the climate crisis. But that isn't necessarily the case, according to Wood Turner, director of Climate Counts, a nonprofit that ranks companies based on their commitment to addressing climate change. The group gave Apple low marks for corporate climate leadership earlier this year.

The progress on reducing toxics "is heartening and demonstrates that Apple is on the right track," he said. "But we'd like to see that same commitment to addressing global climate change." Apple should set goals and targets to reduce the ecological impact caused by the production and distribution of its products, he added.

Apple is now offering environmental reports for its products that provide details on all ecological aspects, including measurement of emissions produced at each stage of a product's lifecycle. For instance, a pie chart for the new MacBook shows that manufacture of the product accounts for half of the total 460 kg of greenhouse gas emissions. But no goals are listed.

The MacBook has new efficient packaging using corrugate cardboard made from 25 percent recycled material. And the notebooks also meet Energy Star 4.0, EPEAT Gold and Restriction of Hazardous Substances environmental standards.

Standards and percentages aside, Apple has done an excellent job marketing itself as a leader in green practices. A report released last week shows that nearly one-third of Internet users view Apple as the most environmentally friendly brand, compared with Dell at 21 percent and Hewlett-Packard at 15 percent.

That's quite a shift from 2005 when Apple's recycling and other environmental policies prompted protests outside the company's annual meeting.

A Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics Report released in September ranked Apple 13th, with a point score of 4.1 out of 10. Dragging Apple down was its recycling rate, but that rate has nearly doubled since 2006.

"There are many people in the environmental movement who have been highly critical of Apple. They have complained that Apple has not been as progressive with its environmental movement as it has been with its marketing," said Bruce Olszewski, an environmental studies professor at San Jose State University who runs a recycling information center. "So this is really a positive step Apple has taken."

For complete coverage of the Apple notebook news, see "Apple polishes up its MacBook line."