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Written by Mike Buetow   
Monday, 04 May 2009 12:13

Caveat Lector

I’m beginning to really dislike Greenpeace.

The organization was funnier as a target of light mocking in the hit TV show Seinfeld, as the landing spot for the fictional president of NBC who, on a whim to win the affections of Seinfeld co-star Elaine, foregoes his high-profile, high-paying job for a spot on a skiff running interference with whaling boats in the Pacific.
But when Greenpeace starts influencing the decision-making of major electronics OEMs – and not for the better – I start to get a little testy.

Last month, the environmental group issued its dubiously named Greenpeace Greener Electronics Guide. The contents were utterly predictable. As is its wont, Greenpeace took to task several PC makers for having failed to thus far eliminate vinyl plastic and brominated flame-retardants. “The phase-out of toxic substances is an urgent priority to help tackle the growing tide of e-waste,” the group wrote.

Wrong, all wrong. E-waste and toxic substances are two very different things. Yes, products should be designed to be recycled. But it doesn’t follow that discarded devices are necessarily poisoning the planet.
I firmly believe electronics has a leading role to play in the world, and not just as means for entertainment. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded, the latest book by Thomas Friedman (whose exhortations in The World is Flat formed the basis of the argument used to defend the en masse migration of manufacturing to China), he writes that simple makeovers often draw resources and attention away from the more important, and more needed, revolutions.

“I don’t think the leverage points now are in more consciousness-raising. … The danger is you think that if you change your light bulbs, you’ve solved the problem. My motto is change your leaders, not your light bulbs. … Without scale change right now, in terms of climate we’re really cooked.”

As Friedman thus implies, Greenpeace is wrong both in its stance and its methods. The greening of electronics cannot be accomplished in small steps such as the purge of PVCs and BFRs, and besides, the criteria for what’s “green” are rarely clear and always moving.

Still, Greenpeace is turning electronics OEMs into tobacco companies, and in turn we are playing into its hands. I’d offer Greenpeace’s leaders a very public deal: Want to yank BFR’s out of electronics? We’ll do it today, provided you underwrite the insurance policy for any consumer who gets injured as a result of the substitute materials – and for any environmental mitigation that may be needed – for infinity. (And while you’re at it, find an eco-friendly substitute for gas for your whale-watching boats.)

The sad truth is the technology does not exist for an electronics product to be “green.” Yes, some can be more energy efficient than others, but it’s a relative scale, not an absolute. Even if an electronics device itself could be made to be functionally energy neutral, the act of mining for the materials that compose the end-product is horribly ecologically unfriendly.

It’s also politically untenable. As I’ve noted in this space, the decade-long war in the equally dubious Democratic Republic of Congo is pulling in electronics manufacturers, which purchase thousands of tons of raw materials from Congo mines. The revenues are used to arm renegades, and at least 5.4 million people have died from the fighting, sparking campaigns by various groups for bans on buying minerals from Congolese companies.

The battle is making its way to US shores, and could all come to a head as domestic legislators prepare bills requiring companies to disclose – and prove – the origins of the minerals they buy. Critics of the proposed bans – and there are some – say such response would put the miners out of work, and with little other indigenous industry, drive them into lives of crime.
We can question government’s wisdom, but few lawmakers would be sufficiently vapid to promulgate a bill that would cost their constituents money, while simultaneously fueling the problem it proposes to solve.

Oh, wait…

Speaking of vapid, Apex next year begins immediately following Easter, which means much of the setup will take place on what at least two billion people consider the most holy day of the year (see our recap of this year's show, pp. 22-24). IPC should pull a rabbit out of its hat – and move the dates.



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