How green are the new MacBooks?

Having eliminated many toxic chemicals, boosted energy efficiency, and improved recyclability, Apple says that its new MacBooks are the greenest ever.

REUTERS/Kimberly White
Steve Jobs introduces the new MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops at a news conference in Cupertino, California, October 14.

Having eliminated many toxic chemicals, boosted energy efficiency, and improved recyclability, Apple says that its new MacBooks are the greenest ever.

Apple's new line of laptops, which made their debut at Tuesday morning's press conference at the company's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters, are "designed with the environment in mind," according to their website.

Unlike earlier models, the displays of the new MacBooks and MacBook Pros contain no arsenic or mercury. The computers innards – the circuit boards, cables, and connectors –  contain no brominated flame retardants. And the cables contain no PVCs. (They don't say anything about beryllium, cadmium, and antimony – poisonous metals that are common in many electronics.)

What's more, Apple claims that the new laptops – being mostly glass and aluminum – are "almost entirely recyclable." Apple claims to offer recycling services in "nearly all countries" where it does business.

Apple says that their laptops' LED displays consume 30 percent less power than conventional LCD screens, enough to earn them EnergyStar certification.

The company has also cut back on the laptops' packaging, now using about 40 percent less than the previous generation. This cuts down on paper and "means Apple can use fewer planes to transport the same number of products" (of course it would be greener to ship them via boat and rail, but then we wouldn't be seeing them in stores this week.)

All this is enough to earn the new computers a gold rating from EPEAT, or the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, a rating system developed by the Green Electronics Council in Portland, Ore., to help institutional buyers choose computers.

For the first time (as far as I can tell) Apple has disclosed the carbon footprint of its MacBooks. In their Environmental Status Report [PDF] Apple says that the laptops' greenhouse gas emissions – including customer use – add up to 460 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent for the MacBook, and 560 kg for the MacBook Prop, roughly the same amount produced by burning 50 gallons and 62 gallons of gasoline, respectively.

All these qualities might help Apple boost their ratings from Greenpeace. The environmental advocacy group consistently dings the company for their chemicals and e-waste policies, as well as for failing to disclose their products carbon footprints. In its most recent Green Electronics report, released last month, Greenpeace gave Apple a rating of only 4.1 out of 10, placing it 13th out of the 18 electronic companies it reviewed. In the past, CEO Steve Jobs suggested that Apple's low ratings have more to do with the company's secrecy than its practices.

So, if you're trying to buy the greenest possible notebook computer, is a new MacBook the way to go?  The new laptops are probably Apple's greenest offering to date, but it's hard to say how it stacks up to non-Apple competitors. If you can stomach the Windows operating system (disclosure: I can't) then I think you'd be better off going with the Sony Vaio TZ, which got top marks from Greenpeace this year for being free of beryllium. Apple says that it plans to phase out the toxic heavy metal, but it has not yet set a timeline for doing so. [Note: I incorrectly referred to beryllium as a "toxic heavy metal." It's toxic, and it's a metal, but it's not considered one of the heavy metals. Indeed, it's the fourth lightest element.]

But an even more eco-friendly choice would be the XO, the computer given out as part of the One Laptop Per Child project. What's that you say? You're not an impoverished Uruguayan child? No worries: starting Nov. 17, you can participate in the charity's "give one, get one" program in which, for $400, you buy two laptops, one for yourself, and one for a kid in the developing world.

But the most environmentally friendly option would be to wait a little longer to buy that new computer. Even the most eco-friendly ones out there still require large amounts of energy to produce and ship. Chances are, the greenest computer is the one you're already using.

Update: Greenpeace has weighed in on the new MacBooks. Read what they have to say here.

Another update: Innovation blogger Andrew Heining writes about the new MacBooks from a consumer perspective. Read about it here.

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