When Apple launched its new family of MacBook laptops last October, its ad campaign focused on their eco-friendly attributes: a recyclable aluminium and glass enclosure, mercury-free LED backlights, fewer toxins than other computers, and a power-stingy design. A TV ad by Apple dubbed the new MacBooks “the world’s greenest family of notebooks”.

But are Apple’s notebooks – or its other products and its corporate policies – really more environmentally friendly than those of its competitors? To find out, we examined Apple’s product chain, from materials and manufacturing to distribution and recycling. We also talked to environmental and industry groups.

The one thing we didn’t do is talk to Apple directly. The company wouldn’t comment for this article, directing us instead to summaries of its environmental efforts (www.apple.com/environment). While that information is good, it isn’t complete, and that’s a problem. Apple’s efforts to reduce its products’ environmental impact appear to be real, but the company makes it hard to know for sure.

The supply chain
One reason it’s hard to check the environmental friendliness of Apple’s products is that Apple doesn’t actually manufacture them. In the case of notebooks, for example, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), such as Apple, Dell, and Hewlett-Packard (HP), design their systems but then outsource the assembly to contract manufacturers – also known as original design manufacturers (ODMs). While most of these ODMs have headquarters in Taiwan, their factories are usually in mainland China, where labour costs are lower and environmental standards are lax.

According to IDC research analyst David Daoud, 95 per cent of all laptops are manufactured in China; most of them by companies you’ve probably never heard of, including Quanta Computer, Compal Electronics, and Inventec. Most of the companies that supply these ODMs with materials and components are also based in Asia.

Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct requires that its partners use “environmentally responsible manufacturing processes”. But how do Apple and other OEMs really know that contract manufacturers and their suppliers meet such requirements? How does an OEM know, for example, that the internal cables in its laptops are truly free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), or that there’s no arsenic in the display glass?

“These companies understand the potential negative PR for them if they’re caught lying about their environmental policies”, according to Greenpeace electronics and e-waste expert Casey Harrell. He says that both OEMs and contract manufacturers spot check parts and processes along their supply chains, to make sure everything is in order. Global agencies like the European Union and Greenpeace do their own spot checks, too, but not many. “It’s very expensive to take apart a computer and do extensive testing on it,” Harrell says.

Out, dangerous chemicals
So on a lot of this stuff, we just have to trust Apple. Apple’s self reporting is largely positive, but observers say it’s also honest.

In its environmental reports on its new notebooks, Apple says that those computers are free of PVC. When created or burned, PVC releases dioxins, which can cause cancer and can damage immune and reproductive systems. And PVC is often mixed with toxic chemicals that can evaporate – also known as ‘off-gassing’.

Apple’s notebooks are also now free of brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which are often added to plastics used in electronics and other products. BFRs, which can harm hormone and immune systems, pose the greatest risk when electronic devices containing them are produced or destroyed. It’s a problem when open piles of e-waste are burned, a practice that’s becoming common in developing countries in Asia and Africa. Some studies, including one by the Australian government, have found BFRs in the dust that collects on home electronics devices.

Apple has significantly reduced the PVC and BFR content of iMacs and iPods. Furthermore, Apple reports that the displays in the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air are free of mercury and arsenic.

The company is making its iPods and iPhones greener too. The headphones, USB cord, and internal wiring of the iPhone 3G, for example, are all PVC-free. And Apple has reduced the size of the packaging (much of which is made from recycled material) across all its product lines.

Where the e-waste goes
It’s clear that the real environmental hazards of consumer electronics come not from using them but from disposing of them. As Jim Puckett, the founder of the toxic waste watchdog group Basel Action Network (BAN, www.ban.org) puts it, “The most benign part of a product’s lifecycle is when it’s sitting on your desk. That happens in rich countries. The dirtier parts of the lifecycle – the production and the waste – happen in developing countries.”

Apple’s recycling program, which operates in 95 per cent of the countries it does business in, takes back old computers, monitors, printers, and other e-waste at no charge.

In the UK Apple offers to recycle your old computer and monitor when you buy a new one. The company is not clear about where the recycled kit ends up. But since the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive requires electronic equipment manufacturers to finance the recovery and safe disposal of old kit using government-appointed recycling centres, it seems likely that everything is above board.

Many companies ship their e-waste overseas. Apple says that it doesn’t, at least not in the US. Its policy reads, “No waste from Apple’s US recycling program is shipped outside North America. All recovered materials are processed domestically, with the exception of some commodity materials that can be recycled for future use.”

But some people think that the bit about “commodity materials” gives Apple a loophole. Puckett is one of them. BAN is trying to put pressure on Apple and other companies not to export hazardous e-waste to developing countries, either directly or through third-party recyclers. At press time, of the major tech companies BAN is targeting, only Sony had signed the organisation’s Manufacturer’s Commitment. Apple, as well as Dell and others, had not.

When it comes to recycling, Apple and other manufacturers are tight lipped. “Most companies have not been very straightforward about who’s in their recycling chain, and what they actually do with the material,” says Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC, www.etoxics.org), which has been tracking the electronics industry since 1982.

This lack of transparency makes it difficult for watchdog groups to assess Apple’s e-waste operation. “If they could tell us which recyclers they use,” says Puckett, “then we could find out where the [e-waste] is going.”

Greenhouse cleaning
Beyond the presence of toxic materials in Apple’s product stream, there’s the environmental issue of greenhouse gases and global warming.

Apple’s website provides detailed reports of greenhouse-gas emissions created at each stage of its products’ life cycles, including manufacturing, transportation, consumer usage, and recycling. However, it provides scant details on emissions from its overall operations. The Apple 2008 Environmental Update from Steve Jobs explains why.

“Most companies are focused on the emissions produced by their offices or perhaps their factories, but we have found that this accounts for just a small fraction – less than 5 per cent – of the greenhouse gases associated with consumer electronics.”

That attitude doesn’t sit well with watchdog groups like Ceres (www.ceres.org), a coalition of environmentalists and investors that urges companies to adopt greener practices. In a recent report that rated companies’ climate-change strategies, Ceres gave Apple a poor 28 on a 100-point scale. By comparison, Dell earned a 77 and HP a 62.

This Ceres report acknowledges Apple’s efforts to remove toxic chemicals from its products, but knocks the company for not releasing more details about its business’ carbon footprint. The companies that scored highest in the study were those “that choose to make public an overall emissions footprint for their operation,” says Ceres research analyst Megan Good. “Apple hasn’t done that.”

Apple also scored a low 4.3 out of 10 in Greenpeace’s December 2008 Guide to Greener Electronics – lower than competitors Acer, Dell, and HP. The low score is largely due to Apple’s reluctance to open up about its operations.

If Apple’s poor showing in the Greenpeace and Ceres studies is just a question of stubbornness, why won’t Cupertino open up a bit? One reason is that Apple considers such operational details as sensitive information that it’s unwilling to share with outsiders.

“Most companies are protective of their supply chain,” says SVTC’s Davis. “They consider that proprietary infor­mation, so they don’t necessarily reveal it to you or me.”

Citizenship or business?
Despite the low marks for transparency on greenhouse emissions, Apple does seem to be turning greener. But industry watchers say that the company is touting improvements it would have had to make anyway. “It’s not just about manufacturers doing the right thing,” says IDC’s Daoud. “It’s really the market forcing them to do so.”

There is legislation forcing Apple to be greener. If Apple and other tech vendors want to sell computers in the EU, they must meet standards set by the European Directive on the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances in Electrical and Electronic Equipment (better-known as the RoHS directive), which restricts a variety of materials, including lead, mercury, cadmium, and BFRs.

One of the initial consequences of the RoHS directive coming into effect was Apple’s move to end all sales of AirPort Base Stations, eMacs and iSight webcams in June 2006.

In the US, the government set an environmentally friendly example that many corporate tech buyers are following. In 2007 the White House issued an executive order requiring that at least 95 per cent of the electronic products bought by federal agencies meet standards set by the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT, www.epeat.net) – a system for assessing a tech product’s green attributes. “Ultimately, if you want to sell to the federal government, you have to be EPEAT-certified,” says Daoud.
Corporate tech buyers are going green, too. “A lot of companies are saying, ‘If the federal government is doing it, maybe we should have the same requirements’,” says Daoud.

Apple is obviously paying attention. Its new MacBooks earned an EPEAT Gold rating, and they exceed RoHS standards. The bottom line is that going green is good business.

Political science
Whatever its motivations for polishing its green credentials, Apple remains a target for environmentalists. Those environmentalists don’t think that Apple is against going green; it’s just that, following the lead of its CEO, the company hates being told what to do.

“I dearly love Apple,” says BAN’s Puckett. “But the belligerent interface between the company and the environmental community is bizarre.” To dig up details about Apple’s recycling program, for example, BAN had to go through the office of Al Gore, who sits on Apple’s board of directors.

Greenpeace’s Harrell tells a similar tale. “Our communication with Apple is very concise. We don’t get a lot of candid backroom conversations.” Apple’s chilly relationship with Greenpeace is hardly bewildering. In 2006, as part of its ‘Green My Apple’ campaign, Greenpeace created a fake Apple site that criticised the company for the toxic chemicals in its products – a public black eye that Apple has since been working hard to overcome.

Puckett admits that BAN has targeted Apple not because its policies are any worse than those of its competitors, but because of its customers. “Their demographic is educated, socially minded consumers.”

That’s why Apple’s green marketing push makes sense. “Apple has been singled out as a bad environmental player, so it has to free itself from the bad publicity,” says IDC’s Daoud.

“On the design side, Apple has made great moves,” says Puckett. “But not without pressure, and not without Steve Jobs saying we were crazy.”

Even Greenpeace admits that the new MacBooks are a step in the right direction. “These are much greener products than they’ve ever come out with on a notebook line,” says Harrell.

The greening of Apple will almost certainly continue. Consumers want greener products, and governments are mandating more environmentally friendly business practices. What remains to be seen is whether Apple will become more transparent about its environmental efforts. As Daoud puts it, “It would be damning to say ‘We are a green company’, without providing the proof.”