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Steve Jobs unveils Apple's environmental policy

In an open letter to customers and shareholders, Apple chief executive Steve Jobs on Wednesday acknowledged that the company has not been forthright on its environmental policy and then finally proceeded to outline a timetable for the removal of toxic chemicals from the company's products.

"Apple 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," said Jobs. "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."

Regardless of the work that still needs doing, the Apple co-founder said it "is certainly clear" that Apple's policy of not trumpeting its future plans has left customers, shareholders, employees and the industry in the dark about its desires and plans to become greener.

"Our stakeholders deserve and expect more from us, and they’re right to do so," he wrote. "They want us to be a leader in this area, just as we are in the other areas of our business. So today we’re changing our policy."

As part of its policy, Apple plans to completely eliminate the use of arsenic in its displays by the end of 2008 and will eventually eliminate the use of mercury by transitioning all of its displays to LED backlighting when technically and economically feasible.

"Fortunately, all iPod displays already use LEDs for illumination, and therefore contain no mercury," wrote Jobs. "We plan to introduce our first Macs with LED backlight technology in 2007. Our ability to completely eliminate fluorescent lamps in all of our displays depends on how fast the LCD industry can transition to LED backlighting for larger displays."

By the end of 2008, Jobs said Apple also plans to completely eliminate the use of other toxic chemicals like polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a type of plastic primarily used in the construction industry but also found in computer parts and cables, and brominated flame retardants (BDRs), which reduce the risk of fire.

In a comparative jab at Apple rivals, Jobs noted that while HP plans to remove PVC from all their packaging in the near future, Apple made the same move 12 years ago. Similarly, he said, Dell last year began the process of phasing out large quantities of brominated flame retardants in large plastic enclosure parts. For its part, Apple’s plastic enclosure parts have been bromine-free since 2002.

"In one environmental group’s recent scorecard, Dell, HP and Lenovo all scored higher than Apple because of their plans (or "plans for releasing plans" in the case of HP)," quipped Jobs, referring to a report by environmental advocacy group Greenpeace. "In reality, Apple is ahead of all of these companies in eliminating toxic chemicals from its products."

In regards to recycling, Jobs noted in his letter that Apple started recycling in 1994 and today operates recycling programs in countries where more than 82 percent of all Macs and iPods are sold. By the end of this year, that figure will increase to 93 percent, he said.

While there is no industry standard way to measure of the effectiveness of a company’s recycling programs, Jobs seconded a method proposed by rival Dell, which is to assume a seven year product lifetime, and measure the percentage of the total weight a company recycles each year compared to the total weight of what it sold seven years earlier.

"This makes sense to us," said Jobs, "and has the added advantages of clarity and simplicity."

Apple weight recycled as a % of past sales

During the 2006 calendar year, Apple recycled 13 million pounds of e-waste, equal to 9.5 percent of the weight of all products Apple sold seven years earlier. Jobs said he expects that percentage to grow to 13 percent in 2007, and to 20 percent in 2008. By 2010, Apple's forecast calls for the recycling or 19 million pounds of e-waste per year, or nearly 30 percent of the product weight the firm sold seven years earlier.

In another note of comparison to Apple rivals who have benchmarked higher in environmental advocacy ratings, Jobs said the latest e-waste figures from HP and Dell are each around 10 percent per year, with neither company having disclosed plans to grow that percentage in the future. The Apple headman suggests that by 2010, Apple may be recycling significantly more than either Dell or HP as a percentage of past sales weight.

Jobs said that all of the e-waste Apple collects in North America is processed in the U.S., and nothing is shipped overseas for disposal. "We carefully review 'environmental fate' submissions from each vendor, so we know how raw materials are handled at the end of the recycling process," he wrote. "We hold our recycling vendors to the highest environmental standards in the industry. In addition to annual compliance audits, we also review the performance of their downstream vendors."

Jobs also called on system designers to "take responsibility" for their design and material choices in creating new products, and singled out the iMac as "a world-class example of material efficiency," given that it has shed 60 percent of its weight since its inception back in 1998.

Speaking on the subject of iPods, Jobs said Apple this summer will expand its free iPod take back program — which offers customers a 10 percent discount on a new iPod when they bring their old iPod to one of the company's 150+ U.S.-based retail stores — to all of its retail stores worldwide. The program extension will also include free shipping from anywhere in the U.S.

Going forward, the Apple chief executive promised to provide updates on the company's environmental efforts and accomplishments at least annually, most likely around Spring time.

"I hope you are as delighted as I was when I first learned how far along Apple actually is in removing toxic chemicals from its products and recycling its older products," Jobs said in closing. "We apologize for leaving you in the dark for this long."

Readers can view Steve's letter in its entirety at or download it as PDF.