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Steve Jobs Addresses Apple's Enviro-Critics

In an unprecedented statement yesterday, Apple chairman Steve Jobs posted an open letter to the public about his company's commitment to the environment.

Apple has come under heavy fire in recent months from environmental groups Greenpeace and the Computer TakeBack Campaign for its perceived lack of dedication to reducing e-waste, its use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing products, and the restrictions it places on recycling and taking back its computers, iPods and other products.

Jobs did not directly name the company's critics, but he made clear that he sees the company as leading the charge, not trailing the pack.

"Upon investigating Apple's current practices and progress towards these goals, I was surprised to learn that in many cases Apple is ahead of, or will soon be ahead of, most of its competitors in these areas," Jobs wrote in the statement. "Whatever other improvements we need to make, it is certainly clear that we have failed to communicate the things that we are doing well."

In his letter, Jobs dissected Apple's use of a range of toxic chemicals -- including lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and brominated flame retardants -- and compared the company's stance with existing international regulations as well as with competitors' use of the same chemicals.

On lead, for instance, Jobs touted the fact that Apple stopped producing lead-containing cathode-ray tube monitors in mid-2006, while he added, "A note of comparison -- Dell, Gateway, Hewlett Packard and Lenovo still ship CRT displays today."

Jobs noted that Apple's manufacturing processes are already compliant with Europe's new Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) laws as they pertain to cadmium, hexavalent chromium and decabromodiphenyl ether (DecaBDE).

In addition to making clear that Apple has not turned a blind eye on the environment, Jobs used the occasion to outline specific goals for eliminating some toxic chemicals in its products. By the end of 2008, Apple will no longer use arsenic, PVC or brominated flame retardants in its products, Jobs said.

Jobs also addressed the looming problem of electronic waste as it concerns Apple products. Just last month, Apple sold the 100 millionth iPod, and yesterday Jobs said the company would expand its iPod takeback and recycling programs -- currently available only to iPods brought to Apple Stores in the U.S. -- to all Apple Stores worldwide, and would introduce mail-in recycling of iPods to U.S. customers as well.

Although there is no current standard to measure how effective a company's e-waste recycling programs are, Jobs used Dell's benchmark of comparing recycling to the total sales seven years prior. Assuming a seven-year lifespan for most electronic products, Jobs said Apple recycled 9.5 percent of its e-waste last year, and that he expects the company to steadily increase the amount of recycling it undertakes each year.

The announcement came a week before Apple's annual meeting, when shareholders will vote on two resolutions aimed to push the company toward exactly these kinds of environmentally friendly practices.

Apple's critics approved on Jobs' statement on the whole, although they said there is still room for improvement.

"Apple's new commitment to environmental transparency and the phase out of the worst chemicals in its product range are genuine steps forward," said Greenpeace spokesman Steve Smith.

"We give Apple mixed reviews for today's statement," said Robin Schneider, Vice-Chair of the Computer TakeBack Campaign. "Steve Jobs has made some significant commitments regarding phasing out toxic materials in Apple products, which we applaud. We are also glad to see that Apple is finally stating public goals and measurements regarding their takeback program."

The groups said they still had concerns about Apple's policy on shipping e-waste to the developing world, where lax regulations and even more lax enforcement have resulted in enormous mountains of toxic e-waste that cause severe health and environmental problems.

"We are very troubled by their statements about what happens to their e-waste down the line -- it's not at all clear that they are not allowing their e-waste to be exported to developing countries," Schneider said.

Jobs promised that Apple would be more forthcoming about its programs and policies in the future. He said the company would provide updates about its efforts "at least annually," and suggested that other environmental topics would also come under the microscope, including the carbon footprint of Apple products.

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