Greenpeace: iPhone crit makes for more headlines
And the bromine business fights back
Eco-oriented non-governmental organisation Greenpeace has tacitly admitted it's been focusing its criticism of the mobile phone industry on Apple's iPhone because it gets more headlines.
Nothing wrong with that per se. As a campaigner, Greenpeace should be seeking the best opportunities to get its message across. Unless, as Register Hardware noted a week ago , it's in danger of obscuring a broader problem by sniping at a single, high-profile target.
Greenpeace's admission comes in an email  the organisation sent to blog Gizmodo:
"If you think we just protest against Apple then look out for soon a report covering a wide range of manufacturers as we have done in 2006. While it might not make as many headlines as the iPhone it doesn't mean that we are not focusing on all manufacturers to remove toxic chemicals from their products." [our italics]
That was our point about the original Greenpeace report highlighting the presence of nasty chemicals in the iPhone: where was the analysis comparing the Apple handset to devices from Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and others?
Greenpeace's own blog, in response to our original article , maintains that's exactly what it was:
"Today the IT website 'Register Hardware' published this headline "Greenpeace admits iPhone 'compliant' with Euro chemicals rules" claiming the most important fact is Apple complies with minimum legal requirements like RoHS.
"Of course they do - they have to, but this was not the purpose of our report. Our report was comparing if Apple was making progress compared to other mobile phone makers."
Except... er... it didn't. There was no information at all on handset makers other than Apple in the 12-page PDF report  issued by the NGO.
We look forward to Greenpeace's revised all-vendor report. If Apple - or anyone else, for that matter - is slacking on this important matter, we'll point it out. But we're not going to slam a company for meeting its legal requirements and working according to its own deadlines. If Apple hasn't, as it has promised to do, eliminated PVCs and brominated fire-retardant (BFR) materials from its products by the end of 2008, we'll lambast it accordingly.
Speaking of BFRs, this second, Register Hardware-inspired round of Greenpeace scepticism follows a statement put out by the Bromine Science and Environment Forum (BSEF), a bromine chemical industry trade body. It essentially accuses Greenpeace of poor testing and scaremongering , though it has a vested interest in maintaining the use of BFRs.
For instance, it says Greenpeace doesn't know which BFRs are present the iPhone because it only tested for the presence to bromine, and without that knowledge all the NGO can do is "raise an alarm without any basis for doing so".
However, even the BSEF has to admit there are BFRs in the iPhone - it doesn't know which ones, either - so it can't really claim the NGO is wrong in this regard. The BSEF also speculates - a fault it's quick to accuse Greenpeace of - that the BFRs are "reactive" and thus bonded within a plastic at manufacture, a process that prevents the BFRs from escaping into the environment. But, again, it doesn't know this. At least Greenpeace did base its own report on lab findings.
Europe's WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) regulations enforce the removal of BFRs from products like the iPhone when they're disposed of properly, though it can do nothing about old kit that's dumped by its former user or, as Greenpeace points out, equipment that's dismantled by hand.
That's one reason why Europe's Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) regulations ban the use of three BFRs - Penta-BDEs (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers), Octa-BDEs and PBBs (Polybrominated Biphenyls) - in all new kit sold over here from 1 July 2006. Apple maintains its products, wherever in the world they are sold, are within RoHS limits.
But not all BFRs are convered by RoHS, and its these others include as Tetrabromobisphenol A (TBBPA), a compound used primarily to protect circuit boards from fires. If Apple's makes good its pledge, Macs, iPods, iPhones etc will not contain even these substances from 1 January 2009.
Even the BSEF admits there are alternative flame-retardant products to BFRs, though it's quick to suggest these are somehow unknown quantities: "None are as well known or as well tested."
Well, there's a major business opportunity if there ever was one: get testing these BFR-alternatives with a view to bringing them to market in time for Apple's end-of-2008 deadline. Register Hardware will expect a cut from anyone who pursues this idea.