Mercury Rising 鳯女

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Apple: the dark side

Posted by Charles II on January 19, 2011

Apple makes many great products. But there’s a dark side. It can only say it’s a green company because it outsources its pollution. Jonathan Watts, The Guardian:

Apple is more secretive over its supply chain than nearly all of its rivals, says a report from leading Chinese environment groups.

Apple is more secretive about its supply chain in China than almost all of its rivals, according to a new report by anti-pollution activists who accuse the company’s products of degrading the environment and poisoning workers.

Despite its claim to be a leading promoter of corporate ethics worldwide, the maker of iPads and iPhones came joint bottom among 29 major IT firms in a transparency study drawn up by a coalition of China’s leading environmental groups.

“Behind their stylish image, Apple products have a side many do not know about – pollution and poison. This side is hidden deep within the company’s secretive supply chain,” claims a statement by the 36 groups involved in the Green Choice Initiative.

Their report – the fourth to look at the impact of global brands on China’s environment – considers the openness of IT firms and their responsiveness to reports of environmental violations at suppliers.

It follows a series of workplace poisonings, heavy metal contamination incidents and suicides at Chinese factories that supply materials and components for mobile phones and computers….

Hewlett Packard, British Telecom, Samsung, Sony, Siemens and Alcatel were credited as being the most responsive to third-party inquiries about alleged environmental violations.

Computers in general are a dirty industry. Heavy metals. Gold. Nasty acids. Petroleum-based plastics. And they are huge hogs of electrical power. It’s a shame Apple isn’t using some of its new wealth to lay up some treasure in heaven.

The Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs asks that you write to Apple at supplierresponsibility@apple.com.

[Added: Though if n-hexane is the culprit in some of these cases of illness, I’d worry more about a fire than anything else. The stuff is a light fraction of gasoline. You’d have to have a very heavy exposure to cause nerve damage].

Update: The story has hit the Financial Times.

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5 Responses to “Apple: the dark side”

  1. Wege said

    I’m a huge fan of Apple products but I agree with you across the board on this post with one exception: “huge hogs of electrical power”?

    I’m assuming you’re talking about the manufacturing process, and if so I’d like to know more about that. But my actual computers and peripherals are the least power hungry things I own and I’m pretty sure I’m right about that because in the winter months when I don’t run the A/C (heat’s provided), my electric bill never exceeds $30 and I don’t use the “sleep” mode on my computer — it runs 24/7.

    • Charles II said

      You’ll see figures all over the map for how much electrical consumption computers are responsible for. Some estimates run low because they deal with residential use. A lot of computer use is in the industrial sector.

      Some of it has to do with classifying what a computer is. I mean the whole system, from processor to printer, from video card to network switch. HD TVs should probably be classified as computers, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s stipulate that they’re not.

      Power consumption has come down, thanks to LCDs and other energy saving technologies. When I made the statement, it was based on somewhat outdated extrapolations, so–looking at newer data– I might downgrade the claim from “huge hogs of electrical power” to “healthy pigs of electrical power”.

      Anyway, here’s some information I found:

      How much energy do Google data centers use, exactly?

      Google’s major data centers are supported by at least 50 megawatts of electric power, with some estimates ranging as high as 103 megawatts – which is what Harpers magazine guesses is the power load for Google’s data center in The Dalles, Oregon. We suspect that estimate is slightly high, as it assumes 500 watts per square foot across the total footprint of the facility – which includes both technical and non-technical space.

      This guy says that there are 35 data centers. That’s at least three typical power plants devoted just to Google, consuming something like 5 million tons of coal.

      Now, a lot of that is probably not computers per se. It’s HVAC capacity. But try to run those centers without HVAC. Even with robots, not possible.

      Following the introduction of LCD technology

      A German Survey has identified the ICT [Information Systems, Communication
      Technologies and Consumer Electronics] electricity consumption in the tertiary sector [public sector, education, healthcare, services and commerce] buildings to be 11 % of
      total electricity consumption in this sector (Schlomann, 2006) (Grueber, 2006). This is in good accordance with the ECCP finding. The ICT sector is predicted to increase its share in totalelectricity consumption (more equipment and more use of the equipment, in particular data centres are large electricity using buildings).

      Finally, this 2001 study of residential computers showed them at just 2% of the total. But that amounted to 71 TWh, equivalent to 8GW. That’s 16 power plants. 25 million tons of coal.

      Ironically, lots of this is waste consumption. There’s an interesting post on how much electricity is consumed simply by deleting spam. It’s breathtaking, but since it’s not well-sourced, I’ll spare you.

      So, depending on exactly what is being counted, computers and associated equipment burn somewhere between 2% (residential only) and 11% (business only) of electricity. It’s not as bad as what gets consumed on HVAC, refrigerators and stoves, and maybe even TVs. But it’s significant. I also question how much of it is really needed. My heaviest computer usage arises because (a) there’s nothing but crap on TV, (b) most of the processing computers do is reading ads for stuff I will never buy, deleting spam, and scanning for viruses, rather than productive work, (c) I have to maintain multiple computers because software designers don’t make new versions backward compatible, which you only discover after trying to load 15 year-old data and getting the message, “Format disk, Y/N?” Ditto hardware designers, (d) someone put a–holes in charge of the country and someone has to say so.

      Your electric bill is low because electricity is sold cheap. But it doesn’t mean that in the end we may not find it to have been very dear.

      • Wege said

        I’m not sure I’m comfortable with all your numbers. Google’s power consumption should not be left hanging out there. How does it compare with the power consumption of any other Fortune 500 company? For what Google does, I think their power consumption is fairly reasonable especially given that they are THE search engine for the entire planet.

        As for household use, your TV is a much bigger power consumer, even when it’s turned off (TVs don’t really turn off, but are constant power drains).

        As for spam, I think we should use special forces personnel to eliminate spammers. No trials just take them out. Any business model that involves annoying a million people for every sucker that bites is a crime against humanity.

      • Charles II said

        The Google numbers are just for color, Mark. The hard numbers are those for German tertiary sector electrical consumption and US residential. They represent upper and lower limits of estimates that I have seen, about 2-11%. It’s hard to get closer than that, because outside of residential applications, there may be additional power costs, such as HVAC, for high density data centers.

        BTW, as for vampire power, this guy says not to worry, that modern TVs consume about 1 watt when they’re off, and older TVs about 10 watts.

  2. shrimplate said

    “That’s at least three typical power plants devoted just to Google, consuming something like 5 million tons of coal.”

    Amazing.

    Charles, thanks for all your good work. I value it greatly. And thank you for your personal words of support.

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