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Computer Take Back Campaign Continues Pressure on Apple CEO Steve Jobs

As Apple CEO Steve Jobs delivered the commencement address to Stanford graduates on Sunday, telling them not to "let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice," the Computer Take Back Campaign (CTBC) stepped up delivery of its opinions of Apple's e-waste policies, flying a plane over the stadium that trailed a banner reading: "Steve -- Don't Be a Mini Player -- Recycle All E-Waste."

Barbara Kyle, campaign coordinator for the organization and an attendee at the ceremony, told The Mac Observer that she saw no response from Mr. Jobs and heard nothing from Apple, "but they never respond anyway." She said that Stanford University, however, gave an earful to the local airport where the plane took off.

Ms. Kyle explained that her organization targets Apple -- despite the fact that other tech companies, such as Sun, received much lower marks in the CTBC "report card" published last year -- because it "positions itself as a company that thinks different. We actually thought Apple would welcome this notion and want to be the leader in this area. It would have been very predictable for them to say 'We're thinking different by taking the leadership role in recycling.' We're surprised."

The iPod's the Thing

Given Apple's higher profile in recent years thanks to the success of the iPod, Ms. Kyle also saw a way to tie into that by pointing out that the diminutive MP3 player could easily wind up in a trash can when its rechargeable battery gives out and the owner would rather not spend US$100 to have Apple replace it. The CTBC has targeted the iPod in particular, and Ms. Kyle said that Apple's announcement on June 3 that it will accept iPods for recycling at all their stores, in exchange for 10% off the purchase of a new one, "is a small but good step. They've set up the model, and now we'd like to see them take back all their products at their stores."

The CTBC's banner flying over Stanford's stadium

She noted that Apple's choice of words in the brief press release announcing the new service seemed to indicate that the company is listening to the CTBC's message. In particular, the sentence "iPods received for recycling in the US are processed domestically and no hazardous material is shipped overseas" addressed an issue important to the organization: some recyclers simply dump their hazardous materials in China and other places, where impoverished citizens expose themselves to the dangerous e-waste while picking apart electronics for items of value.

Whether that's an indication that Mr. Jobs agrees with the CTBC's talking points, however, is open to debate, given Apple's reluctance to address the media. (Mr. Jobs did address the organization's main points during Apple's shareholders meeting in April, leveling harsh criticism on it in the process.) Ms. Kyle said that her organization has had meetings with Apple employees "who would like to see [a wider recycling program] happen, but the decision making is very centralized in that organization. The commitment has to come from the top, but people can champion it internally. We hope Steve Jobs is open-minded about this and will change his mind."

A Long Row to Hoe

The CTBC has been down this road before: it spent a lot of time and energy in Texas trying to convince Michael Dell that his company should be more open to recycling, and eventually it succeeded. Dell now offers a free recycling kit with new computer purchases: consumers use it to box up their old system and send it back when they're ready. Older systems, however, cost $10 to recycle, according to the Dell Web site. Apple, in contrast, charges $30 to recycle a computer and doesn't make the information that easy to find. Ms. Kyle pointed out that the company "is in a unique position" with its stores and can initiate "a more proactive recycling model."

Hewlett-Packard started its own recycling program shortly after Dell did. The company does its own recycling -- as opposed to turning it over to an outside vendor, like Apple and Dell -- and has created "the kind of model we'd like to see from companies willing to take products back from consumers," Ms. Kyle said. The company also has lobbyists supporting e-waste bills that are pending in several states, including Minnesota, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, while Apple, in contrast, fought against a bill that recently passed in Maine. Ms. Kyle said she'd like to see Apple cease those activities.

The bottom line, she said, is that recycling is "the kind of thing that makes customers loyal to a company, if it's environmentally friendly. Other companies are seeing the wisdom of going green in the way products are designed and the way they're handled at the end of their usefulness."

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