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Green electronics: The good, the bad and the better

By Matt Ford, for CNN
How green is your gadget? Electronics companies are realizing the value to their business of environmentally-friendly practices.
How green is your gadget? Electronics companies are realizing the value to their business of environmentally-friendly practices.
  • Now in fifth year, Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics ranks 18 companies
  • Nokia and Sony Ericsson are best performing, Samsung slipped the furthest
  • Electronics companies pay more attention to Guide and consumer desire for "greener" goods
  • Greenpeace says that consumer pressure is the best means to influence companies

(CNN) -- The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month showcased massed ranks of shiny high-tech products all promising they would change our lives.

But what about the increasing number of eco-minded gizmo fans with one eye on the latest must-have cell phone and the other on the environmental impact of it all?

Step forward the Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics, which claims to "cut through the greenwash" and tell consumers which manufacturers are doing the most to mitigate the environmental impact of their products.

This year Apple, Sony Ericsson and Nokia are leading the way for product ranges free of the most dangerous substances, according to the report, with HP close behind.

Samsung, Dell, Lenovo and LG Electronics have all been penalized by the environmental NGO, who claim they have failed to follow through on promises to phase out of toxic ingredients.

All of this is important say Greenpeace because the toxic materials in electronics can be dangerous for workers during production and they can pollute the environment when they are thrown away. Many gadgets contain valuable metals, such as gold, silver and palladium there is an economic motivation to recycle them.

If this sounds good, it isn't. Much of the recycling is done in Asian and African countries where Greenpeace says there is little infrastructure to recycle responsibly. The work often goes on in primitive conditions; cables are burnt to recover the copper wiring and circuit boards cooked in acid baths to recover gold, polluting the environment and causing toxic materials to accumulate in the bodies of people and wildlife.

But things are improving in the factories of manufacturers, and Greenpeace is quick to congratulate those it believes are making progress.

"Well done, Nokia and Sony Ericsson, for leading the mobile phone sector in eliminating some of the most harmful substances in your products," Iza Kruszewska, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace International told CNN.

"Congratulations Nokia on having the most extensive voluntary takeback and recycling program, with takeback services now offered in some 85 countries.

"Apple beat all the other brands in removing polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) from all its products almost two years ahead of HP and the rest of the PC sector.

"Apple has demonstrated that there are no technical barriers to substituting PVC and BFRs with safer alternatives in smartphones, iPods, PCs and TVs."

As the highest scoring manufacturer, with 7.3 points, Nokia were delighted."

As we take our environmental responsibilities very seriously, it is of course rewarding to see our environmental efforts acknowledged in various rankings, such as this Greenpeace report," Kirsi Sormunen, head of sustainability at Nokia, told CNN.

Greenpeace was also quick to praise Apple for changing its ways, and the impact of Apple's consumers.

"Pressure from thousands of Apple lovers and advocates turned the company green in the time it took to go from iMac G5 (2006) to iMac Aluminum (2009)," said Greenpeace in a statement.

However, when it comes to Samsung, who plunged from second to tied seventh place, Greenpeace doesn't mince its words.

"Samsung, you're lying to your customers and to Greenpeace," says Kruszewska.

"Although Samsung was the first brand to commit to eliminating PVC and BFRs in all its consumer electronics, albeit without a timeline, back in 2004... it has probably done least to bring on the market products without these substances."

Greenpeace have already launched a petition on Twitter asking their supporters to put pressure on the company to change its ways, and the smart money would probably be on an escalation of this action in the coming months.

In response Samsung claims to be disappointed by its position, but "remain committed to change.

While we are disappointed that Samsung has fallen in ranking since the last report, we remain committed to removing BFRs from our extensive product portfolio," a spokesman for Samsung told CNN.

"Working with Greenpeace and other organizations, Samsung has voluntarily phased-out the material from our mobile phones since in 2008 and from MP3 players since in 2009.

"We're very serious about our environmental responsibilities. Not only have we committed to a company-wide initiative that aims to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions from manufacturing facilities by 50 per cent by 2013 -- but we developed the first ever bio-plastic mobile phone.

"We're hoping to exceed good eco-product criteria for 100 per cent of Samsung's products, up from the current 50 percent."

Both the NGO and Samsung say they remain committed to engaging with each other in the future, and for their part Greenpeace believe that regular publication of the guide will keep up the pressure on all major electronics manufacturers and drive change.

"[The Guide's] role is to change corporate policy and practice on chemicals, e-waste, recycling, climate and energy issues," says Kruszewska.

"[So far] it has been successful in as much as most of the 18 ranked companies have commitments to eliminate at minimum PVC vinyl plastic -- used as sheathing on wiring, cables, also internally for connectors -- and BFRs, used in plastics and in the circuit boards.

"Indeed, three companies -- Apple, Nokia and Sony Ericsson -- have now eliminated PVC and BFRs from their whole product portfolios and in addition have removed other hazardous substances like arsenic in glass, beryllium, phthalates and antimony compounds."

But while Greenpeace will continue to put brands under the spotlight, those with the real power to influence corporate behavior are consumers.

"Ask about the environmental performance of products," says Kruszewska.

"Are they energy efficient, do they contain toxic substances, does the company whose product you're buying have a takeback program?"