Toshiba – Please Resist Those Cease and Desist Letters

November 13th, 2012

Toshiba threatens repair geek for posting their computer repair manuals on website

Repairing is better than trashing

page from HP repair manual

Unlike Toshiba, HP, Dell, and Lenovo publish their repair manuals online, for anyone to use. HP Manual pictured.

Anyone who has spent any time following the e-waste issue will recognize that it’s better if we can make our electronic products last longer instead of just trashing them when we don’t want them any longer. It’s even better than recycling. A significant amount of the earth’s precious resources, including metals, energy and water, goes into making each new computer, phone, or television. So while recycling is good, repairing or refurbishing a product for a second owner to use is even better.The best champions of reuse in this country are the hundreds of (mostly small) non-profits who divert products from the landfill or shredder bin, and refurbish them for new owners. Just as important is the huge network of devoted “geeks” who have never met a gadget they can’t fix, and who crusade (often in their spare time) for others to fix their own stuff by making the repair information and parts very easily accessible to everyone, for free.  One such group, based in the U.S. is iFIXIT, which posts free, easy-to-follow repair instructions on a whole range of products, and encourages kids and novices to jump into the Fix-It-Yourself waters and have a swim.

Dell and HP post their manuals, why not Toshiba?

But when one such devoted repair geek in Australia, Tim Hicks, posted Toshiba’s computer manuals on his website, he got a cease and desist letter from Toshiba, saying it was proprietary information.  According to a piece in Wired magazine, Tim’s site is used by a lot of non-profits and service technicians alike (for free, of course).  But now they will no longer have access to his Toshiba manuals, which he has had to take down.

Every product has a repair manual, which the companies supply to their own authorized repair vendors. While they are copyrighted, many companies don’t enforce the copyright. Any repair guy will tell you  that it helps them to their jobs when the manufacturers of the products make their own repair manuals available online, for everyone to use.  Dell and HP both do this – with photos to make them even easier.  Lenovo does this for some products.  Apple, like Toshiba, will have their lawyers send you a letter if you post their repair manual online.

Technically, Toshiba has the right to enforce their copyright. But consider the bigger picture here. Toshiba (along with every one of its competitors in the industry) follows the planned obsolescence business model, where they make money by constantly selling us new stuff, not by getting us to hang onto our old stuff longer. Using the official manufacturer repair depots is often expensive, and not always convenient (it’s common to have to ship the product off for repairs). So companies that only offer that option (and don’t empower other repair options) are, in effect, creating an obstacle to reuse and repair of their products. It’s bad enough that manufacturers like Toshiba don’t design their products the be significantly upgradeable and long lasting;  the least they could do is to make it easy for people  to find out how to fix them to get a little more use out of them.

Come on, Toshiba. Show us that you actually mean the words in your Environment Vision 2050 statement, and publish your repair manuals on your own website, enabling people all over the world, who want to keep using your products, to easily do so. Really, you should consider this an endorsement of your products that people think they are worth fixing and refurbishing.


EPA’s voluntary program for “safe management of used electronics” won’t prevent unsafe e-waste exports to developing countries

September 20th, 2012

Today the EPA announced its new “Sustainable Materials Management Electronic Challenge,” a voluntary program to encourage electronics manufacturers and retailers  to launch or improve their takeback/recycling programs for used electronics, and in particular to send more of their e-waste to certified recyclers.  Good intention, not necessarily good results.

Manufacturers and retailers may join the program at one of the three tiers, bronze, silver or gold, pledging to meet the requirements of the tier within a year.  The levels primarily reflect how much of the e-waste collected under the program is sent to certified recyclers. At bronze, they are sending less than 50%, silver 50-95%, and gold 96-100% by weight is sent to certified recyclers. There are some additional requirements for silver and gold levels.

Some good elements

There are things we like about the EPA’s new program. It borrowed some elements from our own Electronics Recycling Report Card metrics.

  • It covers all collection streams, including business (something companies rarely report on publicly).
  • It requires annual, public reporting on collection volumes, collection sites, and efforts to publicize their program.
  • At the gold level, programs must show increased volumes in one or more state without a takeback law, a good idea, but which won’t have much impact if it can be met by showing an increase in only one state.

Ignores biggest problem in the industry

The EPA could have done the right thing on e-waste exports in a couple of ways:But we are very disappointed that the EPA has basically ignored one of the biggest problems in the recycling industry – the fact that so many recyclers export at least some categories of e-waste to developing countries. While the EPA’s press announcement today called for “Safe Management of Used Electronics,” exporting e-waste to developing countries is anything BUT safe – at least for the workers and residents near the locations where crude, dangerous, “informal” processing occurs.  This is bad for both people and the environment.

  •  The easiest way would have been to require use of recyclers certified to standards that prohibit the export of toxic e-waste, including untested or non-working products, to developing countries. Currently, there are recyclers in 92 locations across the U.S. certified to the e-Stewards standard, which has that important requirement that prohibits the unsafe exports. Many more recyclers are in the process of getting certified to the e-Stewards standard. The other standard, called R2, does allow export of e-waste to developing countries. But the EPA, under different leadership, helped convene the R2 standard stakeholder process, so for political reasons, the EPA seems to be unable to favor the clearly stronger e-Steward standard.
  • Still, the EPA could have set this program up to reward companies, perhaps at the higher tiers, who can show that they are only using vendors who are not exporting e-waste to developing countries, without specifying e-Stewards.

Incentives to export are high
ponse to our report card, but not always their business vendors.Also, the EPA programdoes not require public disclosure of which vendors the manufacturer or retailer is using. They must report this to the EPA, but public disclosure is optional.  Some have begun to disclose their consumer in response to our report card, but not always their business vendors.

Why are we so focused on who the vendors are, and what standards they are using? Because we know that some of the manufacturers are paying extremely low rates to their recycling vendors, at least for certain streams. This is particularly true for the price per pound paid to recyclers to process used  CRT TVs or monitors (with cathode ray tubes). Recyclers who are paid such low prices per pound would have to lose money on these streams if they managed them responsibly, so the incentive to export them to developing countries instead is very high.

We continue to be disappointed by this Administration’s failure to draw the line at dumping our toxic e-waste in developing countries, especially in their voluntary efforts like this one and for how they are managing their own e-waste. Because market pressures stronly encourage these kinds of exports, by not including measures to prohibit them, the EPA is basically condoning e-waste exports to developing countries. Some of the manufacturers have already taken positions stronger than the EPA is promoting here with its gold level tier.  If the EPA is going to establish a voluntary program with tiers of performance, shouldn’t the highest (gold) level be at or above what the leaders in the industry are already doing?


New Ultrabooks – Ultra Inconvenient if You Need a New Battery

August 15th, 2012
Ultrabook photo

Photo by Bigstockphoto

It’s back-to-school shopping time and for some of you, that means a new laptop. There’s one new technical specification that probably isn’t on your list of comparison metrics, but should be: replaceable batteries. Does the manufacturer allow you to replace your own battery, or will you have to ship it off to the service depot for a week, for a “repair”?

If you are shopping for the thin, light, fast laptops called “ultrabooks,” then you may want to read our new report, “Ultra-Inconvenient” before you buy.  Ultrabooks are basically the PC manufacturers’ version of the Mac Book Air.  Many new ultrabooks appeared on the scene early in 2012, with even more coming out this summer with Intel’s new ivy bridge processor.

While Apple loyalists are accustomed to having to go back to Apple for new batteries (and they have stores that do this while you wait), this will be a brand new inconvenience for most PC laptop users. That’s why we were so surprised to find that most manufacturers make absolutely no mention of this design change – not on their websites, product descriptions, or even in the detailed specs.  They also fail to mention that if you try to change the battery yourself anyway, something that’s actually quite easy to do for many of these laptops, you will void your product warranty.  Not exactly user-friendly. More like user-hostile. This will make the next laptop battery recall even more fun.

Some manufacturers still have user-changeable batteries in their ultrabooks

The designers will surely state that they made this tradeoff in order to attain the very thin profile (it must meet Intel’s thin test in order to use the trademarked term “ultrabook”).  But our report found that there are a couple of ultrabooks that still have removable batteries and still meet the thin test.

In addition to being user-hostile, this design change makes it less likely the laptop will have a “reuse” phase after the initial owner is done with it.  Because of the enormous amount of resources that go into manufacturing computers, reuse – extending the life of any computer – is far more “sustainable” than just recycling it.

Obstacle to Reuse

But anything that makes it harder (or more expensive) to repair or refurbish a product makes its reuse less likely.  [Apple’s new MacBook Pro/retina is the poster child here, with its glued-in battery.] Having to go back to the manufacturer for a battery and pay their labor costs is a reuse hurdle. For some people, it can be the point at which they decide they are ready to buy a new one, and put the old one aside. Hopefully it gets donated or sold to someone who knows where to buy third-party batteries, and who is not daunted by having to open up the laptop just to replace the battery. But we know that many people hang on to working laptops to hand them down to family or friends.  But you don’t want to give someone a dead battery laptop. So you put it aside to figure it out later….

We hope that the industry will put the metric of user replaceable batteries up higher on the design specs, both for sustainability and convenience reasons. In the meantime, they should be much more transparent about this issue on their websites so consumers don’t find out the hard way.  And they shouldn’t punish us for their design decisions by voiding our warranties just for changing our own batteries.


Apple rejoins EPEAT, admits quitting was a mistake

July 13th, 2012

Apple gives itself a Gold grade for laptop where the battery is glued in

Laptop battery photo

Apple glues the battery to the case of its Mac Book Pro with retina display. Photo courtesy of iFixit.

Apple  rejoined the EPEAT green electronics program today, relisting its qualifying products on the EPEAT registry of computer products that meet the IEEE standard 1680.1 for environmentally preferable attributes. Apple published a statement on its website today, from Senior VP Bob Mansfield, saying that leaving EPEAT “was a mistake.”

Apple took a lot of heat for quitting EPEAT. The City of San Francisco had said they would no longer purchase Apple computers. The San Jose Mercury news published a scathing editorial yesterday, calling on Apple to “think green, not greed.”

Apple had unexpectedly quit the EPEAT program recently, suddenly removing all of its products from the registry – the list that EPEAT maintains to let purchasers know which products are EPEAT-rated, and at what rating level (bronze, silver, or gold).  This move was surprising, given that Apple has been a leader in many aspects of environmental design, like selecting recyclable, and less toxic materials. All its products on the registry were at the Gold level.

It’s generally believed that Apple had quit EPEAT because it’s new flagship laptop – the Mac Book Pro with retina display – couldn’t meet some of  EPEAT’s “Design for End of Life” criteria because Apple glues the battery into the laptop with industrial strength glue. This makes it impossible for consumers to replace the battery themselves, but even the super-experienced repair guys at iFixit couldn’t remove the battery without puncturing it, “releasing hazardous goo all over.”

Apple should flunk EPEAT for gluing in the battery

While we are very glad to see that Apple has rejoined the EPEAT program, we are astonished to see that in reposting its products to the EPEAT registry, Apple has actually listed four versions of the Mac Book Pro with retina as EPEAT Gold level products.  We seriously doubt that these Mac Books should qualify for EPEAT at any level because we think they flunk two required criteria in the “Design for End of Life” section of the standard. They are:

  • Criterion External enclosures shall be easily removable by one person alone with commonly available tools.
    While you can open up the enclosure, you can’t completely remove one half of the casing from the large group of batteries. They are glued to the case with industrial strength glue.
  •  Criterion Identification and removal of components containing hazardous materials.
    This criteria specifically applies to batteries, as well as circuit boards over 10 cm2 and other components, and says they must be safely and easily removable. Gluing the battery in does not quality as “easily removable.” In fact, it’s exactly the kind of design that this standard seeks to discourge.

It’s important to understand that the manufacturers grade themselves against the EPEAT criteria first, and then EPEAT conducts a review of this grading. That EPEAT review has not yet occurred. They can require the manufacturers to remove any product from the registry if it is not found to conform to the IEEE standard.

Apple is often a design leader in electronics, but they really blew it here.  They are ignoring a really important design goal here – designing to promote product longevity and reuse.  Designers should make it as easy as possible for users to replace their own batteries. This is like designing a car with tires that you can’t replace when you have a flat without making an appointment at the dealer and paying them a hefty fee for the tire.

We hope Apple’s next version of this Mac Book Pro comes with a removable battery.


Apple Quits EPEAT “Green Electronics” Program

July 9th, 2012

Apple has just withdrawn from the federal EPEAT program – which allows manufacturers to grade their electronic products against “environmentally preferable” criteria. This is a surprising step for the company that believes that its products are greener than its competitors’.

What is EPEAT?

EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool), allows purchasers to identify “greener” electronic products by providing a “registry” where manufacturers of certain electronic products can list their products that meet certain environmental standards, at the bronze, silver, or gold level.  Currently, only computer equipment (computers, monitors, laptops) are on the EPEAT registry, but standards were recently completed for televisions and imaging devices (printers, scanners, copiers), so the registry will be expanding to include these additional products.

Apple previously had many products on the EPEAT registry, many at the Gold level. But recently, Apple removed all of its products from the registry and alerted the EPEAT program that they were withdrawing.  Apple is now the only major computer manufacturer with no products on the EPEAT registry.

New MacBookPro Can’t Meet EPEAT

Apple isn’t commenting publicly on the reason for their actions. But it’s widely assumed to be because their new Mac Book with Retina Display can’t meet the EPEAT standard for easy disassembly, a requirement to promote repairs and recycling. The guys at iFixit, an army of talented geeks fighting for the right of people to repair their own products, took apart the new Mac Book Pro with Retina Display, and found that Apple has glued the battery into the casing, using industrial strength glue.  They said that they finally were able to force the battery from the casing, “but in the process punctured the battery, leaking hazardous goo all over.”  Not exactly designed for easy disassembly.

Rather than admit that its “whole new vision for the notebook” can’t meet the very modest EPEAT standard, Apple seems to have decided to quit the game and go home.

Designers need to design with recycling in mind

This design decision – to glue the battery to the casing using industrial strength glue – is a perfect example of how some companies are not designing their products with the “end of life” phase in mind – recycling.  The first step in recycling is to disassemble the product to the point where you can remove the toxic components – things that could harm workers if they go in the shredder – like batteries and mercury lamps.  When these notebooks eventually make their way to recyclers, the recyclers will have the same problems that the iFixit guys described above. But if it takes a recycler too long to disassemble the product, they won’t do it. It’s just too costly. So whatever potential gains Apple designers intended by designing metal casings will be lost when the battery can’t be removed easily.

Apple has been a leader in some other areas of environmental design. We wish they would prioritize designing for reuse, repair and recyclability as well.


Walmart – Where’s Your Takeback Program?

May 31st, 2012

Over 100 faith leaders from all 50 states push Walmart on takeback

As Walmart holds its annual shareholders’ meeting today in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the Texas Campaign for the Environment (TCE) and local clergy are publishing an Open Letter signed by more than 100 faith leaders from all 50 states calling on Walmart, which sells more than $50 billion in electronics each year,  to do its part to promote responsible electronics recycling.

Unlike Best Buy, Walmart does not have a takeback program to recycle the electronics it sells.  It has only a small online service where you can mail back small items. Walmart does partner with Samsung to recycle electronics made under Walmart’s house brands, but Walmart has not sold its own brand of electronics for a few years.  Best Buy, on the other hand, has a national program in all its stores, to take back and recycle a wide range of electronics, of any brand.

TCE, a partner organization in our coalition, has been campaigning for over a year to encourage Walmart to launch a takeback program, including sending over 30,000 letters from residents from all over Texas. Today’s letter from priests, pastors, rabbis, lay leaders, faith based activists and theologians endorsed that work, and shows support from across the nation for Walmart to show leadership on recycling.

Walmart should partner with the TV companies on takeback

Retailers are uniquely positioned to play a vital role in the e-waste takeback infrastructure. First, they are viewed by consumers as a very convenient way to recycle their e-waste, and we have already seen that if recycling is not made convenient, most people won’t do it. Second, most people prefer to drop off e-waste, not mail it back using an online interface. Some will do mailback if they get money from it, but few will go to the bother of packing and shipping items for recycling. And third, some items, including most TVs, are just too big and heavy to mail back for recycling. We need physical collection sites to allow consumers to drop them off. Walmart would do a big service to all of us if it would partner with the TV companies, most of whom have takeback programs, but who find it challenging to set up a collection system.  Walmart is selling their TVs, why not help with the reverse logistics and provide the front door for these companies to take back their used TVs?

Use Walmart’s Facebook “What’s on your mind” Page

TCE is urging everyone to post a comment on Walmart’s Facebook Feedback page today, urging the company to launch a real takeback program and do it’s part to keep our e-waste out of the trash.


CEA’s Recycling Report Reveals Still No Industry-wide Commitment to E-waste Recycling

May 4th, 2012

Volume Mostly From Complying with Laws

Recently, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) released the first annual report of it’s new “Recycling Leadership Initiative,” an industry-wide effort to get its members to recycle one billion pounds of e-waste per year by 2016. According to the report, the industry collected 400 million pounds in 2011, up from 300 million pounds in 2010.

For now, let’s set aside the fact that we don’t think the billion pound goal is all that ambitious for this enormous industry, compared to what they’re selling each year plus all the old stuff that is already in use.

We are absolutely in favor of these companies increasing their voluntary recycling efforts, and building robust and responsible recycling programs. In fact, our coalition came together over 10 years ago around a campaign to encourage the computer companies to launch voluntary takeback programs.

But what we’ve learned in more than a decade of work on this issue is that most of the electronics companies (with a few notable exceptions, particularly Dell and Best Buy) don’t do much more than what’s required under the law. That’s why states have been passing e-waste recycling laws in the last decade, to require these companies to take back and recycle their products.

Has the tide turned?  Are the companies in this industry now actually embracing their recycling responsibility, going beyond what’s required under the state laws?

For the most part, it doesn’t appear so.

Most of the volume resulted from state programs

By my calculations on what the state e-waste programs have reported for 2011 collection volumes, nearly 300 million of the 400 million lbs collected was in states with takeback laws. That means the companies were simply complying with the state laws. (I don’t count any of the California program totals, and am estimating amounts for several states who have not yet reported on 2011 volumes.)

Half of the volume from just three companies: Dell, Best Buy, Samsung

Just  three companies, Dell, Best Buy, and Samsung collected more than HALF of the total CEA reported.  Best Buy reported collecting 82.9 million pounds in FY 2011. Dell reported 81.3 million pounds. Samsung collected over 50 million pounds.

Detailed Reporting Missing

It’s difficult to really tell what’s going on from the very brief information in CEA’s report. CEA says on their website that their goal is to “provide transparent metrics on ecycling efforts,” but we think it would be great if CEA would provide more detail on this leadership program, so we could better understand it.  Here’s the kind of data we’d hope to see from CEA in order to have confidence that this is an authentic, industry-wide effort:

Volumes collected by company.  CEA reports one total volume amount (400 million pounds) but they don’t say who collected what. There is no disclosure for each company. They do list these 20 companiesfor “demonstrating leadership.” But CEA has 2000 member companies. The list includes Funai and Philips, companies who have no voluntary takeback program as far as we can tell. (They do recycling to comply with state laws.)

  • Acer
  • Apple
  • Audiovox
  • Best Buy
  • Dell
  • Funai
  • Hitachi
  • HP
  • Imation
  • Mitsubshi
  • Nintendo
  • Lenovo
  • Orion
  • Panasonic
  • Philips
  • Samsung
  • Sanyo
  • Sharp
  • Sony
  • Toshiba
Missing in action. Notably not included here are a lot of companies with significant market share in their category. TV companies Vizio (number 1 or 2 in TV sales), LG, RCA/Thomson. Where are the printer companies – Canon, Lexmark, Epson, Brother, Kodak? Microsoft? Amazon (Kindle manufacturer)? Walmart? Best Buy has a large program, but where is Walmart? Target also sells many house branded TVs, but has no takeback program.  There are also some major mobile phone, audio, GPS, home theater and, digital imaging companies – all missing. We are looking forward to when all of these companies are listed as “leaders.”

2. Volumes collected by state. The only way we can know whether these are efforts that go beyond what the state laws require is to see state by state reporting (by company). We know that at least some of the companies supply that information to CEA.

3. What are the collection streams?  Most companies have different programs for taking back and recycling their old products. To make sure we are comparing apples to apples, it’s important to see the data broken down by these different collection streams. They include:

  • Consumer takeback programs
    • Ongoing collection sites, usually operated by partners or vendors
    • Mailback
    • Collection events
  • Buyback or trade in programs
  • Business asset recovery programs
  • Off lease returns – products that are returned from being leased

Why is this important?  The reporting should be transparent by return stream, so everyone can see what’s being captured in the totals, particularly whether any of the volumes including business streams. We’ve been doing a Recycling Report Card for years, so we know that the companies don’t all report their “total pounds recycled” for the same streams.  For instance, some companies might include returns from their asset recovery programs, or equipment coming off lease, and others may not. Some companies lump in toner returns with equipment takeback numbers. Getting a breakdown by stream eliminates this confusion.

The collection stream information is particularly significant in light of the fact that one very clear goal of CEA’s “leadership program” is to convince the States that there is no need for them to pass any more laws mandating producer takeback. But most of the state laws don’t cover large business e-waste. Big businesses typically already work with an asset recovery firm to manage their electronics that are being retired. Most of the state laws apply to consumers and in some states, other entities that act like consumers when it comes to recycling: small business, schools, non-profits, sometimes small government agencies.  Therefore, the States will want to see whether the companies are doing a good job serving the recycling needs in their states for the people who need it – the non-business customers.

It’s disappointing to see that this year’s results don’t show a big step forward, but we recognize that it’s a challenge to push some of these companies into doing their part, and we commend CEA for trying to herd the cats on this. Here’s an idea – what if CEA required each company that wants a booth at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to post a prominent sign at their booth disclosing their volumes of recycling in the U.S. in the previous year.  That might get the conversation going!


GAO Report Finds Feds Not Always Managing Own E-Waste Responsibly

March 20th, 2012

Photo by Brian McEntire, iStockphoto

Bill in Congress Would Solve Key Issues

A new report, “ELECTRONIC WASTE: Actions Needed to Provide Assurance That Used Federal Electronics Are Disposed of in an Environmentally Responsible Manner,” released yesterday from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that federal agencies still have a long way to go in managing their own e-waste responsibly. Interestingly, problems identified in the report are ones that would be addressed by the passage of bi-partisan Congressional e-waste legislation introduced in the House and Senate, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act.

Here are some of the key findings of the report:

10,000 Computers Disposed Weekly

According to the GAO, the U.S. federal government is the world’s largest purchaser of IT equipment, spending $80 billion in FY 2010, and disposing of 10,000 computers each week. The report found that while federal agencies have made some improvements in how they are managing their e-waste, “federal agencies often have little assurance that their used electronics are ultimately disposed of in an environmentally responsible manner.”

Floundering Federal Electronics Stewardship

There have been several efforts by the federal government to promote better “stewardship” of used electronics including two executive orders plus voluntary efforts led by the EPA, the GSA, and an interagency task force. The GAO goal for this report was to review these efforts and see if they’ve been effective. For it’s study, the GAO looked at a cross section of five agencies.

What it found is that while there has been some improvement in management of federal e-waste, none of these efforts can assure that federally owned e-waste is being managed responsibly, mostly because the agencies can’t show what’s ultimately happening to their used products.

Agencies Don’t Know Where it Goes

Agencies typically use several different methods for disposing of their unwanted electronics, including donating them, sending them to other federal agencies, giving them to a recycler, or selling them at auction. Currently, agencies only report (via a GSA reporting system) some of their donations, meaning most of their e-waste isn’t reported or tracked. The GAO report notes, “Currently, due to challenges associated with the tracking and reporting of used federal electronics, the ultimate disposition of these electronics is unknown.

Exporters Find Ready Supply at Government Auctions  

As long as they are selling e-waste via auctions, the agencies will be unable to control or even know what happens with their used products. Brokers commonly buy lots from auctions, and export them to developing countries. The report found that federal agencies don’t even see it as their responsibility for making sure their e-waste is disposed of properly.

 Better Solutions

We continue to be astonished that our own federal government has not chosen to lead by example when it comes to managing its used e-waste in the most responsible way possible. We made these suggestions last year to the federal agencies, in our comments on the Federal Electronics Stewardship, but they bear repeating here since action hasn’t been taken. They should:

  • Not allow federally owned e-waste to be exported to developing countries. This includes units/parts that are not tested, or are not found to be fully functional.
  • No auctions. There is no way to perform due diligence on equipment purchased at auction. This practice should be ended.
  • Use certified e-Stewards. This is the strictest recycling standard out there, so the federal agencies should use recyclers certified to this standard.
  • No prison labor. Many agencies use UNICOR, a federally-owned, prison labor recycler, for their used electronics. This undercuts recycling business, and has many health and safety problems for prison workers.
  • Track donations, to make sure they are ultimately recycled responsibly. Donations to schools and non profits or government agencies should be tracked, and the donating agency should make sure that this equipment (which often has a short reuse life) will be handled responsibly, even if the agency must provide the resources to do so.

Congress Has the Answer to the Agencies’ Problem

Fortunately, members of both houses of Congress have introduced a bill that would address these problems. H.R. 2284 and S. 1270, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act (RERA) would restrict the export of toxic e-waste (including that coming from the federal government) to developing countries. This includes used electronics which have not been tested, or which are not fully functional. Exporters of electronics would need to be licensed by the EPA, which would weed out most of the brokers who currently buy at auction simply to export to developing nations.


Apple Takes First Steps on Supply Chain Working Conditions

January 20th, 2012

Apple published a list of most of its supply chainLast week, Apple Inc. took the first step in addressing the serious worker health and safety issues with its suppliers, by publicly disclosing a list of 97% of its supply chain and by announcing it had joined the Fair Labor Association (FLA), a multi-stakeholder group that monitors workplace conditions. But is this a significant step in improving the working conditions for the people that make Apple’s products? First, it’s important to understand the context for this announcement.

Suicides, explosions, chemical exposure at Apple plants

Apple’s actions were long overdue, as the company had barely responded following a series of suicides in the last two years, committed by workers at Foxconn Technology Group in China, one of Apple’s primary contract manufacturers, and the largest contract manufacturer in the world. (It’s largest factory in China has over 500,000 workers.) Labor rights groups say that the suicides at Foxconn resulted from powerless employees, driven to despair over harsh working conditions, including standing 10 hours per day, enduring military-style management, low pay, and extensive (mandatory) overtime, far exceeding what’s allowed under the law. Workers are routinely shortchanged on their wages, due to “miscalculations,” and they must fight just to receive what they are owed. Eighteen workers attempted suicide in 2010 (with 15 deaths), mostly by jumping from upper floors to their deaths. The suicides came at a time when Apple was demanding that Foxconn meet aggressive production schedules to keep up with demand for iPhones and iPads. Foxconn responded to the suicides by installing anti-suicide nets around the buildings. They also made employees sign pledges not to commit suicide! They also hired counselors and raised wages for workers at the Shenzen facility, although the new wage is only slightly above the new minimum wage required by the Shenzen government, according to a report called “Foxconn and Apple Fail to Fulfill Promises: Predicaments of workers After the Suicides,” by Students & Scholars Against Corporate (SACOM).

Plus, says SACOM, they made the wages seem larger than they really are by reclassifying money previously paid as housing and food allowance into salary payments. The net income is almost the same as before. Apple applauded these actions by Foxconn at the time. Foxconn is reducing the size of the workforce at Shenzen,(in Guangdong Province, where wage rates have seen the highest rise in China) sending many of them plus new hires to their other factories in the interior of China, like the Chengdu facility, where wages are lower.

What’s amazing is that after all the pain and suffering endured by these Foxconn workers in making Apple products, their work accounts for a only small portion of the total value of the product. A July 2010 report by market research firm iSupply, breaking down the actual costs of the iPhone 4, found that assembly costs accounted for only about one percent of the total $600 cost, or $6.54 (Profit was $360.) This suggests that a simple decrease in profits or a simple increase in price on each iPhone could make a world of difference to the people that make them.

Foxconn CEO compares employees to animals at the zoo

According to Want China Times, Terry Gou, the head of Hon Hai (Foxconn), the largest contract manufacturer in the world, had this to say at a recent meeting with his senior managers: “Hon Hai has a workforce of over one million worldwide and as human beings are also animals, to manage one million animals gives me a headache,” said Hon Hai chairman Terry Gou at a recent year-end party, adding that he wants to learn from Chin Shih-chien, director of Taipei Zoo, regarding how animals should be managed. Foxconn’s Chengdu plant, which makes iPads for Apple, had an explosion last May, killing three people and injuring 18 more, caused by combustible aluminum dust. In December 2011, a similar explosion at a Shanghai plant run by a different supplier (Pegatron) injured 61 people. In 2010 Apple had problems with another manufacturer called Wintek , where 137 workers at their Suzhou plant were sent to the hospital after being exposed to the highly toxic chemical n-hexane on the assembly line making Apple touch screens. N-Hexane has long been known as a serious occupational health hazard and many companies no longer use it as a solvent. Workers say that Wintek pressured some of the injured workers into resigning and taking cash settlements, even though exposure to the chemical can cause long-term health problems including nerve damage. Some are still unable to return to work.

Foxconn probably made something you own

Foxconn makes many Apple products, including iPhones, iPads, and MacBook Pros. They also make products, parts, or subassemblies for many other electronics companies, including HP, Dell, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Amazon (Kindles), Microsoft (Xbox), Panasonic, Samsung, Lenovo, and Nokia. While many of its plants are in China, it’s controlled by Hon Hai Precision Industry of Taiwan. Other brand name companies also have problems resulting from Foxconn conditions. As recently as January 2 of this year, 150 workers at a Foxconn plant in Wuhan, China climbed up to the roof of their building and some threatened to jump to their deaths in protest over management imposed changes and wage issues. These workers were reported to be from the Microsoft Xbox assembly line. (They eventually settled with the company).

Foxconn Not The Only Problematic Contract Manufacturer Foxconn is the world’s largest contract manufacturer, with 13 factories in China alone, and almost 1 million workers worldwide. But these kinds of problems are not limited to Foxconn. A study by China Labor Watch shows that the deplorable conditions at Foxconn are actually typical of the electronics contract manufacturers in Asia. In their study of 10 electronics factories in the Guangdong and Jiangsu regions of China, they found widespread problems in all the factories, (eight of which are suppliers to Dell, and seven to HP) including:

  • All factories had people working overtime hours from 36 – 160 per month. (Legal limit is 36 hours).
  • In nine of the ten factories, the minimum monthly wage ($138 in one factory) didn’t meet the living costs of many workers, which leaves them no other option but to take many hours of overtime work just to survive.
  • High pressure production line conditions, often standing for 8 to 10 hours a day or more. Breaks are often not allowed.
  • Discrimination. All ten factories were found to discriminate in hiring. Many prefer young (often below 18 years), female workers who are seen as easier to control.

China Labor Watch concluded that these are systemic problems in the electronics industry, which require new strategies to change.

So what kinds of strategies are needed, and did Apple take the right first step?

Transparency is always a good first step. The labor conditions of electronics workers have been pretty well hidden (at least from the U.S. audience) by the electronics industry for a long time, so any real solution must start by shining a bright light on all aspects of this problem. More disclosure about who the suppliers are is certainly a good first step, and Apple has now done that. While many in the media are calling Apple’s disclosure an unprecedented step, Apple is not actually the first to do this. In response to demands from activists around the world, HP published its supply chain list back in 2008. Dell maintains a similar list on its website, following HP’s lead. But it was a particularly significant change for Apple, which has had an historic obsession with secrecy, and we hope that this signals a new era of transparency for Apple under new CEO Tim Cook. But like HP and Dell, Apple’s disclosure is just an alphabetical list of suppliers, without addresses, or even countries, and without any other details, like who makes what and classic discount pack where. Or which companies are their top 10 or 20 suppliers by volume, or by income. So this disclosure doesn’t provide much help to anyone who wants to research and track down working conditions and environmental pollution at any of Apple’s suppliers.

Disclosure must be more detailed to be meaningful

What is needed is much more detailed disclosures about the locations, and operations by these contract companies  side effects 6 months and full disclosure of working conditions as well as the occupational and environmental health track record. Consumers should be able to know where their products were made and by whom. This is particularly important for the high-tech brands, since most consumer electronics are not manufactured by the company whose name goes on it. Consumers need to be able to figure out who actually did make their products , and how those companies are performing on standards for labor rights, health and safety, and the environment. Only then can consumers exercise their purchasing power by rewarding those that have the best track record on issues of concern.

Companies should also be transparent about the chemicals and materials used to make their products, including what the workers are exposed to as well as what ends up in the product. Workers often have very limited information about the chemicals they are handling, which limits their ability to understand what kind of precautions should be used. The second part of Apple’s announcement last week was that it had joined the Fair Labor Association (FLA), as the first electronics manufacturer. (FLA was formed to address issues in the garment industry.) Because FLA is a multi-stakeholder group, this will hopefully mean that Apple is now willing to dialogue with international groups, including labor rights groups, and labor unions. That could be a positive step, but it remains to be seen whether Apple will open the lines of communication. We hope so.

In joining the FLA, Apple must now follow the FLA’s workplace Code of Conduct, and make sure the code of conduct is implemented throughout its supply chain. International labor rights groups, including Good Electronics Network and MakeITfair are somewhat skeptical that this approach will yield real results, in part because they believe solving the problem requires the brand companies like Apple to pay a fair price to suppliers, who must agree to reasonable delivery times (without forced overtime) and who pay a decent wage to their employees. They believe that the FLA does not adequately address that problem with its Code of Conduct approach. They also point out that FLA only audits 5% of the supplier base, not the whole supply chain, and they had trouble meeting even that goal. Once upon a time, you could buy products that were made in the U.S. (or other developed countries like Japan) by people who were employees of the brand name companies.

But companies have shifted to using overseas contractors, who work with subcontractors who have even more subcontractors. These supply chains are complex and it’s very difficult for one manufacturer to effect change. Current strategies – like the FLA or the EICC (Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition) who have both established voluntary codes of conduct – may sound good, but they are enforced only by audits, are too easily gamed by a supply chain in countries where cheating your audits (which are announced well in advance) is a well-honed skill.

Hope Apple’s steps are the first of many down the road to improvements

So we hope that these moves by Apple are not the only ones they will make, but are the first of MANY steps to help fix this broken and deplorable situation and that all the other brand name electronics companies invest some of their billions of dollars in profits into assuring that their suppliers are paying their workers a living wage, providing a healthy and safe workplace, and ensuring that their handling of toxic chemicals used in production do not damage their workers or the environment.

What would real leadership in sustainability look like?

Perhaps Apple can lead the electronics industry in pursuing strategies that will result in real change. Apple has developed a reputation for being a design leader globally – wouldn’t it be great if they decided that they want to build on this reputation to become the global sustainability leader also! This starts with full transparency of the current situation:

  • – Who makes what, where, and for whom (full transparency of the supply chain for all products)
  • – What wages are paid at each factory, how much overtime do workers have to work in order to achieve a “living wage”
  • – what assurances do the companies make to ensure that employees have the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, consistent with the International Labor Organization convention
  • – What chemicals are used to manufacture the products and which chemicals end up in the products and
  • – What chemicals are the workers exposed to and in what concentrations
  • pharmacy in canada What health tracking and monitoring of the workers is being done and what are the results
  • – What training and information is provided to workers about toxic exposures (right-to-know and capacity building)
  • – What compensation does the company pay when a worker gets sick from exposures to chemicals on the job
  • – What toxic chemicals are being discharged into the environment by all of the suppliers in their supply chain
  • – What is the brand name company doing to develop safer and “greener” chemicals in their production processes


Learn more:


Daily Show logo

The Daily Show: Fear Factory

The Daily Show, Comedy Central Jon Stewart’s brilliant and hilarious take on conditions for iPhone workers in “FearFactory.” January 16, 2012.




KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny, January 17, 2012:KQED Forum logoWorking Conditions at Apple Suppliers


Mr.Daisey and the Apple Factory This American Life, Public Radio International. Jan 6, 2012 “Mike Daisey was a self-described “worshipper in the cult of Mac.” Then he saw some photos from a new iPhone, taken by workers at the factory where it was made. Mike wondered: Who makes all my crap? He traveled to China to find out.


China Labor Watch logoTragedies of Globalization: The Truth Behind Electronics Sweatshops China Labor Watch, July 12, 2011. Link to report.


Foxconn and Apple Fail to Fulfill Promises: Predicaments of Workers after the Suicides. Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), Hong Kong, May 6, 2011. Link to report.  



Apple Joins Fair Labor Association: Will other IT companies follow suit? by the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development, January 18, 2012 Link to article.

Apple’s list of suppliers Apple’s supplier responsibility report


E-waste recyclers support federal bill on e-waste exports

December 22nd, 2011

The largest e-waste recycler in the world yesterday announced its support for legislation in Congress to restrict exports of e-waste from the U.S. to developing countries.  Sims Recycling Solutions, which has e-waste recycling facilities in 14 countries, and handles e-waste recycling and asset recovery for many of the IT companies in the U.S., announced its support for H.R. 2284/S.1270, the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act, and joined a growing coalition of  recyclers calling for passage of this policy.

The Coalition for American Electronics Recycling (CAER) is a new organization of electronics recyclers committed to growing the U.S. based electronics recycling industry, and expanding the capacity of U.S. companies to manage e-waste here, adding new jobs and promoting the U.S. economy.

Why A New Coalition?

You might ask why you even need a coalition to promote such mom-and-apple-pie goals as more recycling, more jobs, and a stronger economy. Doesn’t everyone want that?  But it makes sense when you understand that many companies calling themselves recyclers are mostly exporters – companies who collect e-waste, who pick out a few of the highest value items, and then export the rest by the container-load, to developing countries, where the toxics in the e-waste are not well-managed, and they end up causing great harm to communities and the environment.  These are the companies that are behind a lot of local community or charity collection events, or who contract with local governments to handle the used electronics from local residents. They don’t actually recycle most of it – they export it, or more likely, they just sell it to a broker who exports it. It doesn’t take a lot of workers) or create a lot of jobs) to load up shipping containers.

On the other hand, real recyclers create a lot of jobs. Recyclers take the products back to their facilities. They sort and disassemble the products, pulling out reusable parts (or separating out, testing, and refurbishing reusable whole products), removing hazard-containing parts, and then separating the products into various materials (glass, plastics, metals, etc) that they can sell as recyclable commodities. Many of them have invested in expensive equipment (shredders) that help with this material separation and processing, as well as equipment for testing, inventory, sales.

Why the Sims Announcement Is Significant

This new coalition represents real recyclers, not the exporters. They came together to voice support by their industry for the Responsible Electronics Recycling Act in Congress.  Currently, the primary opponent to the bill is the scrap recycling industry association called ISRI – the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. ISRI says they are the voice of the recycling industry. But the existence of this new coalition, whose members have 89 facilities in 32 states plus the District of Columbia,  suggests that ISRI does not speak for the whole industry. The addition of a large company like Sims to this coalition is significant, because Sims is the world’s largest electronics recycling company, and they have been a key ISRI member. They have more than one seat on ISRI’s governing board. And they are on the other end of many of the electronics companies’ own takeback programs.

The business community’s support for this legislation continues to grow. It’s been endorsed by Dell, HP, Apple, Samsung, LG, and Best Buy – all companies that operate e-waste recycling programs, all companies who are already living by the policies and principled behind the legislation.  It’s a policy that’s good for business and good for our economy.