Environmentalists push for a 'greener' iPod

First, Apple made iPod. Wondrously white and smooth and with a navigational Click Wheel so touch sensitive, it granted music lovers a sense of magical powers untold.

Then environmentalists broke the spell. The iPod, they told attendees at the Macworld Conference & Expo last month, was not magic but a piece of hardware with a very mortal heart: a battery that lasts only two to three years and is difficult to replace.

Why pick on the tiny iPod when landfills around the country are filling up with 16-inch monitors and ancient CPUs? Because of the sheer numbers of the devices being sold, and Apple's reputation as a forward-thinking company.

In the last part of 2004, Apple sold 4.5 million portable music players. Given the iPod's battery life, all of these could become e-waste by 2007.

The rising problem of how to dispose of outmoded electronic gadgets has caught the attention of the US Congress. Last week, legislation was introduced in the House that would charge consumers a fee on the purchase of computers and TVs to fund a nationwide recycling program. So far, American consumers have been largely uninterested in pushing companies to make their products more recyclable.

Environmentalists say the real push may come from Europe: New European Union laws ban hazardous materials in all consumer electronics and require companies to take full responsibility for recycling them. Soon, US companies will be forced to comply, or risk losing a large and powerful market.

At the same time, US universities, government agencies, and other large purchasers of consumer electronics have started applying pressure to manufacturers to produce more environmentally friendly wares. So the expectation is that companies will come up with product designs and models to satisfy new requirements.

"This is a very exciting period," says Joanna Underwood, president of Inform, which researches corporate environmental practices. "It is a time of intense creativity by corporations. The ones that are most creative will be the winners tomorrow."

On the horizon, for example, is a cellphone cover by Motorola, which is biodegradable and leaves in its place a sunflower seed. The design is still under research, but a cellphone that begets a sunflower puts the notion of electronic wizardry in new perspective. If successful, it would represent the paradigm shift that environmentalists hope for. Ideally, they say, companies would think about not just how to dispose of an MP3 player, or how to build lead-free monitors, but about a product's entire life cycle.

The European laws are expected to provide the incentive. One recent directive by the European Union shifts responsibility for recycling electronics and electrical equipment manufactured or sold in Europe from consumers to producers. European companies need to have facilities in place to handle this task by August. Even more important for US manufacturers is an EU law that will ban the use of toxins such as lead and mercury by July 2006.

"The European market is driving everything, there's no doubt about it," says Jack Geibig, acting director of the Center for Clean Products and Clean Technologies at the University of Tennessee.

Does this mean we'll be seeing iPods that decompose and sprout trees? Apple wouldn't comment on whether the company has plans to change its products or environmental practices.

Still, environmental advocates are optimistic. Walt Rosenberg, a vice president at Hewlett Packard, says that pressure from large buyers has been steadily mounting. "At the corporate-account level, [the pressure] is very real and very critical," he says.

But Mr. Rosenberg also says that this new attitude in the public sector will rub off on the consumer market. HP receives thousands of consumer inquiries each year relating to environmental concerns, he says. In response, last fall HP teamed up with Office Depot and offered consumers free electronic recycling.

Martin Charter of the Centre for Sustainable Design in Surrey, England, says that environmentalists have been too hard on Apple. Many of its products already have environmentally friendly features like easy disassembly for smooth recycling.

But Sheila Davis of the Clean Computer Campaign in San Jose, Calif., is holding out for something more impressive from Apple. "I hope next year at the Mac convention that one distinguishing point will be a product that [is totally recyclable]," she says.

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