Green Apple?

By 2010 70% of the first generation iPhones sold where no longer in use, instead they had become “e-waste”. In total E-waste now makes up around 5% of all waste, roughly the same volume as plastic bags, however electronics contain some of the most difficult and dangerous materials to dispose of. Apple products are the embodiment of “clean” design. When the original iPhone debuted in 2007 it was no exception. However underneath its sleek exterior the iPhone was far from “clean”, in fact it contained a range of toxic materials. These included Brominated Flame Retardants (BFR) and Poly Vinyl Chloride (PRC) that had already been phased out by other manufactures such as Nokia. The manufacture and disposal of PVC creates polychlorinated dibenzodioxins. These have been linked with thyroid disorders, damage to the immune systems, diabetes and a range of other health problems (dioxins where the chemical in the herbicide “Agent Orange” responsible for 100,000 of deaths and birth defects during and after the Vietnam War). Similar although less well researched concerns exist over the use of BFRs. Products containing significant amounts both chemicals have since been banned within the European Union.

Naturally the best course of action seems to be to recycle and in this respect Apple have made decent progress in rolling out an international take back scheme for their products. However the global reality of the electronics recycling industry is often far from green, simply recycling a phone is no guarantee it will not go on to harm people or the environment. If the toxins in electronics are dangerous during the manufacturing stage then they are even more so during disassembly. While the relationship between Apple and its suppliers is far from open it is a legal relationship and thus Apple can be directly linked to them. However, as we experienced first hand during the course of are investigation, the links with recyclers are far more tenuous. As we found out ourselves even Apples official region recycler, the Li Tong Group, would not comment when we spoke to them in person at their Hong Kong office. This lack of accountability is on of the biggest problems with the e-waste industry. Despite a myriad of international and national regulation NGOs such as, the Basel Action Network, have exposed that even apparently reputable companies are involved in the illegal export of e-waste to China.

The problem is expounded by the existence of multiple informal channels of disposal. In Hong Kong anyone in the region of Causeway bay or Chunking Mansions will be able to sell their iPhone, weather functional or not, on the street. One buyer we spoke to simply said she sold them on. Working models are likely to enter the second-hand market. As for the damaged models the informality of these unofficial disposal channels makes them impossible to trace. This places Apple in a position of plausible deniability when it comes to the protection of people and the environment.

Nonetheless weather by formal or informal channels it is known that large volumes electronics often return to the countries from which their raw materials were drawn and components assembled, marking the completion of cycle. In towns such as Guiyu, in Guangdong province, electronics are broken up with valuable metals such as copper and gold being extracted and components such as microchips being removed for reuse. However recycling her is a small-scale informal business. Printed circuit boards heated on open fires and metals stripped in open vats of acid and those conducting this dirty work may not even be aware of the dangers involved.

Nonetheless it is important to remember that the recycling industry is the best possible way of disposing of electronics. Nor is it correct to assume that all Chinese recycling companies are inherently incapable of dealing with waste responsibly. What is needed is expansion of measures such as the Basel Action Networks e-Steward certification to help ensure the responsible conduct of all recyclers.

By Rory Wilson

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