Dell trumps Apple on green report card

An environmental watchdog group has issued a new report card, giving Dell props for executing a program under which customers can easily return old gear for recycling by the manufacturer. Apple, which often crows about its green cred, received only a C+ for its device take-back and recycling programs.

The report card, produced by the Electronics Take-Back Coalition, scores each electronics maker on how many recycling drop-off centres it has (even in states where the law doesn’t require them), on the volume of recyclable devices currently being taken in, and on the way the manufacturer goes about recycling returned devices.

Dell and Samsung go green

The group’s national coordinator, Barbara Kyle, praises Dell on its efforts over the past two years to set up a working infrastructure to accept, receive, process, and recycle its worn-out gear. Kyle says that just two years ago Dell’s take-back/recycle program consisted merely of an offer to consumers to mail back their device. Now the company has drop-off centres at its stores across the United States, and it has partnered with Goodwill drop-off sites to accept its dead computers.

Samsung gets credit in the report for doing roughly the same thing during recent years, earning a grade of B-.

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Apple, for all its claims of environmental friendliness (which some critics have disputed in regards to the iPhone), garnered only a C+ grade for its take-back and recycling programs. The report points out that although Apple has a mail-back program and that the company will take back your old computer in the store when you buy a new one, it will not allow you to just drop off an inoperable device at one of its stores for recycling–nor will it take back a nonworking, non-Apple device without a $30 charge.

On the other hand, an Apple spokesperson told me that you can bring an old iPhone in for recycling, and that Apple will give you 10 per cent off the purchase of a new iPod if you bring in your old one for recycling. The spokesperson told me that Apple has no direct comment on the company’s mediocre report-card grade, and she directed me to Apple’s Recycling Program page for more information.

The report also dings Apple on its lack of transparency about the amount of take-back and recycling it’s actually doing. “Apple doesn’t disclose volume information, and doesn’t provide any way to evaluate whether Apple is collecting high volumes in nonmandated states in addition to states that require it to,” the report states.

All in all, the major U.S. PC, TV, and printer manufacturers had a poor showing in the report. Of the 29 graded, none received an A grade. In fact, 21 received a mark of C- or lower, and 12 of them received failing grades.

The Consumer Electronics Association chose not to comment on the industry’s dismal results.

Printer makers’ recycling: Fail

The biggest underachievers in the report card are the printer makers: All but one received an F grade. The Electronics Take-Back Coalition handed out the failing grades to Brother, Canon, Epson, Kodak, and Lexmark, saying that the companies have little infrastructure or desire to take responsibility for the disposal of their printers at the devices’ end of life.

The leading U.S. printer maker, HP, was not assigned a score specifically for its printer recycling program (HP earned a C- for its PCs and printers combined), but Kyle says that HP is like most other printer makers in its take-back programs.

“There is just almost no information available from HP. They say ‘We have a mail-back program,’ but that’s just the same as saying ‘We have no program at all.'” Consumers are unlikely to box up and mail back a dead printer at their own expense just for the manufacturer to recycle it, Kyle says.

E-waste often exported

Some companies in the report have good programs for taking back old devices, but recycle the equipment irresponsibly. Manufacturers, Kyle says, routinely “recycle” old gear by sending it overseas to “backyard” recycling centres in poor countries such as Ghana and India, and in poor parts of China. The dead devices are easily shipped overseas on the same boats that deliver new devices and components to the United States.

It is in these backyard recyclers that the human and environmental cost of technology-materials disposal is paid. The backyard recyclers are mainly interested in removing all metals from the devices they receive, selling it in various forms for money. Other, less-valuable materials such as plastics are either burned or thrown into a landfill.

For instance, Kyle says, the recyclers place circuit boards over an open fire to melt the solder off. Workers use strong, barely diluted acids at the sides of rivers to burn the chips off the circuit boards. The remaining plastics–which contain lead–are burned, releasing dioxins into the air to be breathed.

The Electronics Take-Back Coalition believes that gear makers are responsible for the recycling of their products at the end of life. In addition, the group says, the companies are responsible for letting their customers know that take-back and recycling programs exist, and for taking the hassle and cost out of the act of returning dead gear so that customers will actually comply.

Kyle points out that not only do manufacturers trumpet their “green” sensibilities in PR campaigns, but they also build the cost of recycling into the price of the products they sell–so it’s the consumer who is actually paying for the recycling.

Most major manufacturers do have programs that allow you to return your old devices for them to recycle. The question is whether the electronics companies are really taking action on recycling, or merely going through the motions.

For more information, see the report cards for all companies (PDF)

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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