Apple recently rolled out its new family of Macbooks with a bold claim: The World’s Greenest Family of Notebooks. The new Macbooks are lighter, less toxic, and more energy efficient than previous generations, but are they really the greenest laptops in the world?
Two years ago, Greenpeace challenged Apple and other major laptop producers to reduce the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which are commonly found in electronics. PVC is made from a known carcinogen, and can release chlorinated dioxins when burned for disposal or leach chemicals if buried in a landfill. BFRs bioaccumulate and can release bromine in hazardous forms when burned for disposal. Children in India and China who dismantle our used electronics are then exposed to these toxins.
After Greenpeace determined Apple to be one of the electronic companies that were least responsive to their concerns about electronic waste, Greenpeace launched its “Green My Apple” campaign specifically targeting Apple’s environmental policy and asking for greater transparency.
Steve Jobs issued a statement in May of 2007 titled “A Greener Apple,” pledging to reduce the BFR and PVC content of its products by the end of 2008 and “explore the overall carbon ‘footprint’ of our products.” To evaluate the verdancy of the new Macbook, I looked at five things: toxic content, carbon footprint, recycling potential, energy efficiency and commitment to continued progress.
While Apple has not reduced the use of BFRs and PVC to zero as they promised, they have reduced the allowable level of bromine and chlorine to 900 parts per million, or .09% of the product’s weight. This level is low enough that it becomes impractical to rely on BFRs, which are normally used to prevent fire, because they are ineffective in such small volume. Producers that use BFRs to fireproof their electronics add 50,000 ppm of bromine on average, so 900 ppm is a large reduction. Still, the company is careful to say “No BFRs in logic boards and all internal cables are free of PVC” instead of claiming that the entire Macbook is BFR- and PVC-free.
The battery is lead, cadmium and mercury free, which complies with EU directives. The Macbook display contains no mercury or arsenic, which are still found in other notebooks (including some made by Apple). In September, Dell announced it would transition to mercury-free displays.
The new Macbook is lighter and its packaging has been reduced by 41%, allowing the company to transport more units at a time. Apple would not release specific information about where its products are made, how far they travel or by what method, but the company is claiming that transport only accounts for 10% of the product’s carbon footprint, while production accounts for 50%, customer use for 39%, and less than 1% for recycling, for a total of 460 kg of greenhouse gas emissions – the equivalent of about 52.2 gallons of gasoline.
It surprised me that Apple says transport is such a small part of the carbon cost, since the company has factories in China and transports its Macbooks at least part of the time by air.
Apple has a fairly convenient (you have to pack it and FedEx it) recycling program for anyone buying a new Mac in 95% of the regions where Apple products are sold. If you are buying a new Apple, you can recycle your old computer, even if it’s a PC. All the recycling collected in North America is processed in North America, not shipped overseas. In contrast, Dell will recycle any old Dell product without requiring a new purchase.
The new Macbook body is made from a single piece of aluminum, which makes it “highly recyclable.” The Macbook got full points for recyclability from the EPA’s EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) rating system, which declared the laptop to be at least 90% recyclable, however it received 0 out of 3 points for materials selection from EPEAT for not using any post-consumer recycled content or bio-based plastic.
“The use of aluminum for the body takes it up a notch or two – plastics can be difficult to recycle, and demand for the recycled material fluctuates,” points out Thomas Tierrney, of Paydirt, a consulting firm that teaches businesses how to go green. “Aluminum, on the other hand, is highly recyclable and is in relatively constant demand – it’s one of the few materials where production of virgin stock is more costly than recycling.”
Apple hopes to recycle 30% of the weight of the products it sold in 2003 – presuming a 7-year average life span for its products – and figures it has recycled 83 million pounds of electronic waste to date.
The new Macbooks are ENERGYSTAR 4.0 compliant and Apple brags that the Macbook can run on a quarter of the power needed for one lightbulb. Its LED-backlit display uses 30% less power than conventional LCD displays. Apple is claiming a battery life of up to 1,000 charging cycles (complete charge and discharge of the notebook battery), up from 200 to 300 cycles for existing Apple batteries, which is fantastic if true.
COMMITMENT TO PROGRESS:
Apple is vague about its plans for the future and seems reluctant to set concrete goals, but says they are “continually striving to reduce the environmental impact of the work we do and the products we create.” The strongest evidence of this is that they are now preparing and releasing “environmental status reports” for all Apple products. These reports include an estimate each product’s carbon footprint.
Is it the Greenest Laptop In the World?
Apple is not just calling the new Macbooks green – it’s saying they are the greenest laptops in the world. However there are 113 laptops that received EPEAT’s Gold rating. The highest-ranked notebook is the Toshiba Portege R500, which received an extra point for “energy conservation” because it has a solar charger.
Toshiba’s new Portege R600 was named the greenest notebook in Greenpeace’s second annual “Green Electronics: The Search Continues” survey, and the HP Elitebook 2530p was a close second. ASUS has a notebook with a bamboo case.
But when it comes to green laptops, I remain unconvinced that the Macbook or any laptops built for American consumption can beat the solar cell and hand-cranked powered XO, which has a battery that decomposes into fertilizer.