Rotten to the Core? A Guest Blogger Responds to Greenpeace's New Controversial Report on Laptop Toxicity

After posting on TreeHugger about Greenpeace's recent report on toxicity in laptop computers, we got a small torrent of comments from readers questioning Greenpeace's methods and how they reported their findings. The discussion seemed such an important one that we promised a follow-up to flesh out the issue. One particularly pointed comment came from Keith Ripley, and we've invited him to expand on his comment in which he criticized the Greenpeace report, and the eco-blogs who wrote on it uncritically. (Full guest post below the fold) Keith is a blogger, author, and consultant focusing on environment, health, safety and consumer protection issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. More of his writings can be found at The Temas Blog. We hope to see further discussion of toxicity in electronics and suggestions for more positive action.When TreeHugger and others recommended Greenpeace's "Greener Electronics" report, I downloaded it and read it with great interest.

That report troubled me for several reasons. It did not disclose the selection criteria for the companies and product lines chosen. The narrow focus on materials management and end-of-life (EOL) product take-back/recycling excluded a more complete (and probably more accurate) picture of products' footprint. GP did not apply the rating criteria consistently. The report said little about developing nations apart from China.

"Ripe with Toxins"???

The rating system relied principally on corporate information provided on websites — an odd choice for the NGO that coined the term "greenwash" and continually questions the substantive value of corporate claims and pronouncements. I felt (and blogged) that Greenpeace needed to get hard data, verifiable data, to back it up or their rating system would never stand up to scrutiny.

Thus when TreeHugger announced that Greenpeace had released a new report showing that laptops were "ripe with toxins," I rushed to download, thinking here was some of the hard data I had wanted.

The report was not as advertised.

Despite the headlines-grabbing report title and press release headers, the report's actual findings were little to get excited about:

—No cadmium, mercury or hexavalent chrome found in any of the laptops;

—Lead was only found in the HP model, and that in relatively low concentrations in solder;

—No HBCD or PBB identified in any of the samples;

—No PBDEs were found in the Dell and Sony models, while Apple and Acer had only trace levels—basically negligible and certainly under the levels allowed by European Union (EU) law—the law applicable to where the laptops were bought) of PBDEs. Only HP, a company praised in the "Greener Electronics" report, had significant levels for PBDEs: 1650 mg/kg (or 0.165% by weight) of decaBDE and 2040 mg/kg (0.204% by weight) of nonaBDEs.

—No TBBPA—a chemical not banned by the EU's RoHS Directive—was found in the Sony model, and only traces found in the others.

—The amount of PVC (also not banned by the RoHS Directive, or by national laws) was also very low: only a single wire in the Acer and Apple, and two wires in the HP model.

Greenpeace tried to play up the presence of bromine compounds in the laptops, even though they could not tie it directly to the brominated fire retardants they have said are of greatest concern. "At the product's end of life, some disposal or recycling operations (e.g incineration, smelting and open burning) can potentially release the bromine in hazardous forms, including hydrogen bromide and brominated dioxins."

Possible, yes—I've seen the Greenpeace video of Indian boys burning circuit boards in the open air. However, but is it a prevalent risk outside of China and India? I have my doubts—I say that as someone who covers waste and recycling issues extensively in Latin America and the Caribbean—and GP has not presented evidence to back that up. Even if it be found to be happening elsewhere, should the whole world regulate what goes into products on the basis of irresponsible artisan recycling practices in a few countries? That's quite a slippery slope to start down.

A Start, But a Flawed Start

As an initial attempt to go beyond simple reliance on official company information, the "chemicals in laptops" report might be considered a (baby) step forward. Furthermore, by downgrading HP in its ratings after the finds of this report, Greenpeace has demonstrated that it meant what it said previously about penalizing companies if they found that real market data did not match corporate claims (even though penalizing on the basis of one model of one product line bought in one market is a bit dubious). I note, however, that GP did not reward Acer or Apple for findings better than those suggested by the Greener Electronics report.

That said, if Greenpeace intends to continue trying to hold the electronics firms accountable and if they care about their credibility, they'll have to get their act together and do far better than this toxics report. It is flawed on several counts:

—The sampling is too limited—only five units bought in two countries (and why those two —GP doesn't say, of course). One wonders what they thought to accomplish with such a tiny sample, and why they did not devote more resources to the testing.

Why not test products bought in more EU member states, or for that matter, why not those from some non-EU states, especially developing nations (such as Latin America)? These products are not just sold in Europe, and if they contain toxins, their impact as EOL products will matter more to the waste streams of countries other than China and India. Why not have GP offices across the world go out and buy models from local stores and send them in for testing?

If GP does not wish to shoulder the cost of doing so alone, then they should explore teaming up with career consumer product testers with credibility such as many of the members of Consumers International [Consumers Union US (CSUS, which publishes the monthly Consumer Reports), Australian Consumers Association (ACA), UK's Which?, France's UFC, Brazil's IDEC, etc.). After all, Greenpeace says it is doing this to inform and empower consumers, so why not enlist the aid of consumer testing agencies? And CI has expressed strong interest in doing more work on "green consumerism"...

Why only five brands instead of most or all of the 14 they rated in their other report? Were they picked at random? Based on market share data? Some other criterion? Why only notebooks/laptops, and not a sampling of desktops or other electronics? GP does not say in either its report or the press piece on its website. As in the "Green Electronics" report, Greenpeace's lack of transparency about its selection criteria harms their credibility and makes them more vulnerable to questioning of their motives.

—The laptops were all bought three months before the EU compliance deadline for the RoHS Directive. GP acknowledges this in the report, but claims they were not actually testing for RoHS compliance so much as setting a baseline. If that is truly the case, why not test models bought just after the deadline? Why pick up models that might be the end of old inventory, and test them for chemicals still allowed when they were manufactured?

The Way Forward

This is not the way for Greenpeace to make its case. Over several decades GP has brought many important environmental issues to the public's attention when no one else would or seemed capable of doing so. I respect them for that, and for some of good creative, ground-breaking work they have done in areas such as renewable energy and alternative technologies.

But like many of the industry sectors and companies GP spotlights, just because Greenpeace does some good works does not mean we should accept all they say at face-value, not hold them accountable, not demand that they do their work right and in a transparent manner. If they have decided to take on a sector such as the electronics industry, with all its fans and allies in the media and on the internet, GP needs to focus on conducting and emitting well-done work and associated PR that stands up to scrutiny.

GP needs to win on substance, especially if they truly wish to change corporate behavior and/or get regulators to act.