Despite its image as a progressive corporate citizen, Apple Computer had one of the worst recycling records in the American PC industry -- until last week.
But even after Apple unveiled its first free computer recycling program Friday, it still falls short of competitors like Hewlett-Packard and Dell, observers say.
Indeed, this week Apple will come under pressure from its own shareholders to clean up its environmental programs.
"Dell and HP have run circles around them in (recycling)," said Conrad McKerron, a director at As You Sow, a socially responsible investing group.
Announced last Friday, Apple's take-back program will offer free computer recycling with the purchase of a new Mac starting in June. Previously, the company charged $30 for its take-back programs to everyone except residents of Cupertino, California, who've been able to drop off old computers at an Apple collection facility for free since 2002.
The new program takes Apple from "laggard" to "more on a par" with its peers, McKerron said, but more could be done.
Before Apple rolled out its recycling plans, As You Sow placed a resolution on the agenda for Apple's April 27 annual shareholder meeting asking the company to report on ways it could improve its recycling policies.
"We felt we needed to send a message to the investor community that Apple was not keeping up with its peers," said McKerron. "It was disappointing, because Apple's image is often a very progressive one, but we found things we weren't all that happy with."
Dell has offered free computer take-back with the purchase of a new computer since the summer of 2004, said company representative Bryant Hilton. Dell has also partnered with Goodwill stores to offer free computer recycling at locations in San Francisco, Michigan and Austin, Texas.
HP's take-back system for consumers is a bit more complicated: Consumers are charged anywhere from $17 for an inkjet printer to $46 for a computer with monitor. To compensate, customers are given a coupon worth $20 to $50 to use at HP's online store.
Last summer, the company partnered with Office Depot to collect electronic waste free of charge at stores across the country for a limited time.
More importantly, McKerron said, both Dell and HP have publicly stated goals for how much waste they intend to take back, something Apple has declined to do.
HP has a public goal of taking back 1 billion pounds of electronic waste by the end of 2007, including printer cartridges. According to As You Sow research, the company collected 140 million pounds in 2005 alone.
Dell is targeting 280 million pounds of waste by 2009 and took back 42.38 million pounds last year.
Apple, which hasn't stated its recycling goals, brought in 4.1 million pounds of e-waste in 2005.
Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Computer TakeBack Campaign, which created the Badapple.biz website to call attention to Apple's environmental record, said Apple's recycling program lacks force if the company doesn't have public goals to meet.
"If they don't set the goals, they don't necessarily make the effort to reach the goal," Kyle said. "We're hoping that will be the next step and they'll make a commitment to make more recycling happen."
But McKerron said Apple is undoubtedly taking positive steps with its free computer recycling effort. He said As You Sow would have considered withdrawing its shareholder resolution had it known about the initiative.
The program is described by the company as an expansion of a free recycling program for iPods begun last year. Apple promised more details will be forthcoming.
"We do the best we can for the environment," said Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet. She declined to say whether Apple would set recycling goals, but added that recycling "is certainly a priority for the company."
Where Apple's most prominent environmentalist stands on the issue is a mystery. Former Vice President Al Gore, one of America's leading environmental activists, sits on Apple's board of directors. The company would not comment on Gore's role in the recycling program, and calls to Gore's office requesting comment were not returned.
McKerron said he hopes Gore was involved in the program.
"It would be hard to think of a board member more attuned to environmental issues," he said. "I would like to think he had a hand in this and maybe talked to some of the senior management and encouraged them to move on it."
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