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No news of an eco-phone

When Apple is forced to declare on its website that it is determined to become “a greener Apple”, something is changing. Though the industry claims they can’t develop completely eco-friendly devices if users don’t assume part of the price. Let’s take a look at the industry in these iPhone days.

Bad news is no news about the eco-phone.

Apple has officially dropped the word “Computer” from their name; the brand announced in January that it had eliminated the second word from its title to represent the new reality of its business, focused just as much on the sale of consumer electronics as of traditional hardware.

Despite relieving itself from the dead weight of “Computer” and its connotations, related to an era in which the personal computer was a noisy, expensive, autonomous (without Internet) and much more contaminating industry, Apple has not been freed of the negative publicity associated with its low green ranking.

Greenpeace has even won a prestigious award, called the Webby Award (for the best online activist) for an Internet campaign denouncing the lack of environmental consciousness of a firm that has always garnered sympathy from those who had invented an epic battle between Apple and Microsoft.

The industry has changed, Apple is no longer so “small” and there is no longer a direct rivalry with Microsoft in many markets, even though the myth continues, along with the prestige and credibility of Jobs, who has earned points in recent years with his characteristic product presentations.

The prizewinning website copies the design of Apple’s official site, but the characteristic official apple is replaced with a green one missing a core sample, along with the slogan “Green my Apple, to the core.”

This sits beneath the mocking words of Greenpeace (one of the motivating forces behind Apple’s announcement (not wanting to risk losing the sympathy and brand image) that beginning now, it will be greener): “We love Apple. Apple knows more about “clean” design than anybody, right? So why do Macs, iPods, iBooks and the rest of their product range contain hazardous substances that other companies have abandoned? A cutting edge company shouldn’t be cutting lives short by exposing children in China and India to dangerous chemicals. That’s why we Apple fans need to demand a new, cool product: a greener Apple.”

In a letter signed by Steve Jobs under the title of “A Greener Apple“, the company tries to address that it “has been criticized by some environmental organizations for not being a leader in removing toxic chemicals from its new products, and for not aggressively or properly recycling its old products.”

In the most recent Greenpeace ranking of major tech companies regarding their use of toxic materials and environmental policies, Apple was at the bottom of the list (the Chinese firm Lenovo was at the top).

Jobs claimed in the press release, though only after saying that Apple had been working for years on these issues, and just “have failed to communicate the things that we are doing well”, that Apple is going to integrate environmental policies into the core of its future strategy.

The words of Steve Jobs, as CEO of a company with greater technological and media influence in the tech industry than is represented by their sales, carry weight. His announcement of a “greener” Apple is a a sign of things to come, since the brand, headquartered in Cupertino (California) in Silicon Valley, has been a vanguard for trends later adapted by the rest of the industry.

What Google represents for the Internet, with its role as innovator and pole of attraction for personnel, Apple seems to represent for the traditional technological world, based as much in the production of software as in that of its own devices, the hardware.

In the past, Jobs hasn’t hesitated to bring to court, for example, a young American blogger who revealed clues about a new product without express permission from the company. Apple always remains secretive before the launch of new products, that are revealed by Jobs before a packed auditorium filled with journalists and fans.

As masters of marketing, in Cupertino they came to the conclusion this time that it was better to give a serious response to Greenpeace, through Jobs’ press release: “Now (after explaining that Apple already he a recycling policy and he uses less dangerous material than its competitors) I’d like to tell you what we are doing to remove toxic chemicals from our new products, and to more aggressively recycle our old products.”

Nobody would be surprised if Apple, in its next product presentation, announced, via Jobs, progress in this area. It would be the mass market and the market for “cool” would have a mix of the advantages of the iPod or iPhone combined with respect for the environment.

Historically, Apple has adopted means and processes to develop products that, subsequently, have been adapted by the rest of the industry, in many occasions after passing through the filter of Microsoft.

The price of more eco-friendly industrial policies

An article from Reuters on May 19th, collected the conclusions of specialists meeting in Paris about whether consumers were ready to pay more for less-contaminating technological products.

Executives from the technology and media world believe that “customers are not yet ready to pay extra for green products in spite of growing concern for the environment.” In other words, the consumer will criticize Apple for not doing all it can to make its products more environmentally-friendly, but it isn’t willing to pay for it.

The industry is working on numerous ways to save energy and to increase recycling and the use of more sustainable materials, but according to the executives, these measures can’t be “implemented fully unless consumers accepted at least some of the cost.” Russell Ellwanger, chief executive of Tower Semiconductor argues “if the individual is not willing to pay a little more for the environment, don’t expect the industry to do it.”

For Barbara Schaedler, chief marketing officer of Fujitsu-Siemens Computers, “People start realizing that this (respect for the environment) is not just something to do to be hip but that it is absolutely necessary.

Emergence of environmental concern

Leaders in the digital entertainment industry have expressed their surprise at the speed with which the environment has emerged as a top concern. Besides the paradigmatic example of Steve Jobs, other executives, like Miles Flint, president of Sony Ericsson, talk about being increasingly asked recently about the existence of environmental policies for the mobile phone company that he heads.

“I had never been asked that question until three months ago. This is the second time in the last week,” explained Flint after being asked the question at the Global Technology, Telecoms and Media Summit. Despite heading a company whose products will compete with the Apple’s future iPhone, assured: “I don’t think you’ll see us coming to market with an eco-phone in a hurry.”

The ecological telephone, defined as a device that uses recyclable materials and that avoids any substance dangerous to the environment, workers or consumers, is something we’ll have to wait for (though NEC has promised a phone made partly from corn-based plastics by 2008).

Despite the delay for a completely environmentally friendly phone, Flint agrees with Jobs in the importance of eliminating the most dangerous materials and of increasing the recycling of electronic components.

Fujitsu Siemens intends to go beyond this assuring that 98% of the materials in their devices already were treated for recycling, re-use and energy recovery. They include in this affirmation cathode ray tubes (CRT) that we find in all television sets and computer monitors with tube technology, abandoned by the industry in favor of the still costly plasma screens and, above all, of the liquid crystal displays (LCD, with technology TFT).

Tower Semiconductor, a business that manufactures processors in Israel, has centered its effort to reduce the track of carbon of the company in the employment of energy: “To greater reduction of the quantity of energy that we employ (during the production), more respectful with the environment we are”. Likewise, Russell Ellwanger believes that “the capacity to reduce the consumption conducts to the innovation.”

Organic plastics and organic lighting also hold a promising future in this area, regarding the reduction of contaminants still present in the use of plasma and LCD-TFT. The company formed by Fujitsu and the German industrial group Siemens, also recycle plastics from computers, servers and vending machines.

Tower Semiconductor, an Israeli chipmaker, has focused its efforts on reducing the carbon footprint of the company with its energy use: “The more we reduce the amount of energy we use (for manufacturing), the more ecologically friendly we are.” Chief executive Ellwanger also believes that “the ability to reduce consumption drives innovation.”

An example of inefficiency: the lack of mobile phone recycling

Due to their size and close relationship between them, the computing and electronic industries play an important role in the worldwide push for adequate recycling policies, as well as in the elimination of hazardous materials.

Even just focusing solely on the case of mobile phones, a technology extending throughout the world that didn’t even exist 15 years ago, it’s easy to notice the effect of small changes in the industry. According to estimates of Asimelec, the Spanish association of mobile phone manufacturers, just in Spain there are currently between 25 and 30 million mobile phones in disuse, often just stored away in a drawer.

  • In Spain, it is estimated that the average life of a phone is 16 months.
  • In 2006, 20 million mobile phones were sold, a figure that represents about 50% of the population of the country.
  • It is expected that in 2007 sales will be similar.

Now, the data for mobile phone recycling in Spain:

  • Tragamóvil, the primary recycling initiative in Spain, coordinates a network of 600 recycling points located in spots like phone stores, technical service centers, recycling centers and universities.
  • Since they launched their campaign in 2003, they have recycled 750,000 kilograms of mobile phone waste, equalling 6 million mobile phones.

In the newspaper El Pais (“Mobile phones: renewed, but not recycled”, May 14, 2007), Ramón Muñoz explains that more than 90% of the components of a mobile phone are reusable: 58% is plastic; 17%, glass; 25%, metals like iron, copper, silver and even gold.

The most contaminating component are the batteries which contain elements potentially damaging to the environment, like cadmium, lithium and nickel-metal hydride.

The coltan wars

What does an anonymous farmer from the Democratic Republic of Congo, macheted to death two years ago, have in common with devices like the iPhone? The batteries used in devices like mobile phones or MP3 players use a material increasingly more valuable: coltan.

Coltan, an abbreviation for the ore columbo-tantalite, can be used to create a resistant, conductive, and extremely fireproof material used mainly for mobile phones (approximately, half of the world production). It can hold a high electric charge and allows for increased resistance of batteries, which increases their useful life.

80% of the world’s reserves of coltan are located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the old Zaire. Like that of conflict diamonds, the purchasing of coltan is controversial. In 2001 a U.N. Security Council report charged that smuggled coltan may have been helping to fund the war in Congo. Since it’s difficult to distinguish legitimate sources for the ore, some electronics manufacturers chose not to buy African coltan during that time.

As commonly occurs, consumers from higher income countries are almost unanimously unaware of the existence of materials like coltan and the conflicts that the struggle for its control and world commerce can unleash in the poorest countries.

Obviously, no survey has been done in any high income country to ask ordinary citizens: what is coltan; do you know why it is used, etc.