Greenpeace Responds to Alarmist Claims, Admits Targeting Apple Grabs Headlines

Click to viewThis morning we published allegations by the bromine industry claiming that Greenpeace's report on the iPhone was inaccurate and alarmist. Tom Dowdall, Greenpeace International's Web Editor, contacted Gizmodo to present a rebuttal against those allegations and talked about our coverage:

Greenpeace welcomes the debate that has been sparked by our report analyzing hazardous chemicals used in the iPhone.

We are confident that, whatever opinions are expressed, airing this issue will help increase pressure on manufacturers such as Apple to do the right thing and eliminate the use of hazardous chemicals.

I'm glad we agree on one key issue—the benefit to consumers in the long run.

But there are a number of issues in your blog which, in the interests of integrity, we would be grateful if you would address.

Let us first address the major accusation, that of "faulty methodology":

- The study clearly identified bromine in a wide range of materials and components in the iPhone. The technique used is widely recognised for this purpose (XRF; X-Ray Fluorescence spectrometry).

- Similarly, analysis of other hazardous chemicals in the iPhone, such as phthalates, were conducted using recognised techniques.

As so many components were found to contain bromine (9 of the 18 materials tested), it was not feasible for Greenpeace to undertake the extensive and costly work necessary to determine (as far as it is possible to do so) the exact brominated chemical or chemicals present in all these samples.

However, the study did include additional analysis in order to characterise as fully as possible the nature of the brominated chemicals in two of the nine materials. This relied on using an additional technique (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry), as is detailed in the report.

Despite use of this appropriate and widely recognised technique it was not possible to determine the nature of the brominated chemicals in these two materials.

This, however, was not due to the use of faulty methodology or techniques.

As the report states, it is likely that the bromine present in the materials is present in a reactive polymeric form.

To obtain information by analysis on the chemical nature of the bromine in this form is extremely difficult and may not even be possible with any currently available analytical technique.

Ultimately this information may only be available from the manufacturers themselves. Unfortunately this information has not been made publicly available by Apple.

The report does not raise "an alarm without any basis for doing so."

As the report states, due to the iPhone containing bromine in whatever form, impacts can result at the product's end of life. These arise from the unintentional formation of toxic brominated by-products (including brominated dioxins) during some disposal or recycling operations. This has been demonstrated in another recent independent scientific study (Gullett, B.,K., Linak, W.P., Touati, A., Wasson, S.J., Gatica, S., King, C.J. (2007) Characterization of air emissions and residual ash from open burning of electronic wastes during simulated rudimentary recycling operations. Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management 9(1): 69-79.)

The other inaccuracies:

1. Electronics Industry Analyst Group Dismisses Greenpeace Claims on iPhone?

This is inaccurate. BSEF is the international organisation of the bromine chemical industry. The title of the article would more accurately be: "Chemical Industry Group Dismisses Greenpeace Claims on iPhone."

[Editor's note: actually, the "analyst" was corrected and replaced to "group" when this was pointed out this morning. Gizmodo's policy is to strike any factual errors and correct next to them. Many other technology blogs just delete and re-write, but we believe that our faults should be recorded and disclosed in this way. We think "Electronics Industry Group Dismisses Greenpeace Claims on iPhone" is a correct, factual and neutral headline]

2. Greenpeace study is not only alarmist, since all substances are approved for use by EU regulatory requirements.

Despite current EU regulations being the most stringent in the world, these regulations do not cover all kinds of hazardous chemicals, including all BFRs. It is surely reasonable to expect that an industry which prides itself on innovation should be well ahead of the curve on issues as fundamental as the use of hazardous substances.

3. No alternatives as effective as BFRs to prevent fires in consumer electronics:

This suggests we are stuck with BFRs. However, it is possible to significantly reduce the use of BFRs by substituting non-flammable materials for plastics in mobile phones, as some manufacturers already do.

[Editor's note: this fails to address the fact that these changes can't be made in a product in a day without a major economic penalty, as Gizmodo has pointed out before. In addition to that, it looks like Greenpeace is agreeing that BFRs seem to be unavoidable for the time being, as the only thing manufacturers can do is "significantly reduce the use of BFRs," which brings us to the original question: What is low enough to be accepted? Who sets this standard? At this point, the law seems to be the only standard. See point 2 above.]

4. The BFR most likely used in the iPhone is actually a reactive—i.e. it reacts with other substances to form a plastic and, once reacted, it is also no longer available to the environment.

This fails to take into account the real-life situation in which consumer electronics are dismantled by hand, in countries such as China.

Tom also makes other allegations in his mail:

Hi,

Pasted below is our rebuttal for public use—it's quite long but if claims are made about our reports and science being wrong then it needs a long explanation in response.

It's late in the evening here in Amsterdam, I also posted this on our weblog as the story has been posted on other blogs.

http://weblog.greenpeace.org/makingwaves/ar...

We would appreciate if you either post our response text or link to the weblog with a link from the current article. If you want it in a different format or have questions let me know.

I've followed your coverage of our story and while its fine to be critical (we are not in the business to be liked by everyone anyway) and even poke fun calling us 'Greenpeace corporation'—it's a step to far to inaccurately headline a chemical industry press release as "Electronics Industry Analyst/Group Dismisses Greenpeace Claims on iPhone" without even mentioning exactly who is making the accusations. [Editor's note: see above for explanation of this. The headline is correct.]

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.

Regards,

Tom

We have published Greenpeace's rebuttal in its entirety, but we feel we also needed to clarify our position regarding our coverage on this story, for Greenpeace and our readers. First, we are not defending the industry or attacking Greenpeace, even if we joke about it. We object to this:

"While it might not make as many headlines as the iPhone it doesn't mean that we are not focusing on all manufacturers"

This is the heart of the matter: that Greenpeace is using the iPhone (and Apple before, in Macworld) as an instrument to get more publicity, and Greenpeace's video (as well as the targeting of a widely known corporation and über-media-darling like Apple) is clearly designed to take advantage of the iPhone's popularity to Greenpeace's own benefit. Failing to address or ignoring facts as the actual law doesn't make Greenpeace look good either. As Greenpeace rebuttal points out, the law is the law. Apple or anyone else can hardly be considered guilty of anything if the laws don't tell them that what they are doing is harmful for the environment. (If it is, in fact, harmful. We, the media, and we, the public, want to know the straight facts.)

Like Greenpeace says, other manufacturers are at fault. Why do a video about Apple and the iPhone first instead of publishing their findings as a whole report, including the other manufacturers, with references, clear methodology and, hopefully, in a scientific journal or publication so it can be peer reviewed; then make an announcement and crush any company they want? Doesn't Greenpeace think that this will give their allegations more weight rather than making them look like publicists cashing in on the latest fad? While we take the piss here in the Giz quite often, we do believe that serious accusations require serious methodology, not showmanship.

We think that these kinds of moves harm their cause, rather than advancing it—even if we won't look politically correct for saying it. It's easy to dismiss our criticism as "not liking Greenpeace," but that's not the case. If Greenpeace decides to act as a marketing company, the public and the media, including us, will treat them as such—as any other corporation greedy for media attention, market power, mind-share, money and brand awareness.

Greenpeace also deliberately ignored the fact that Apple already presented a road plan to get rid of these components by the end of 2008. We don't know if they did this for dramatic effect or they just don't trust Apple, but certainly, it seems to us that—in all fairness and knowing the market realities of bringing a product like the iPhone to the market—Apple should be held accountable at the end of that roadmap and not now. When that time comes, Gizmodo will be ready to take on Apple if promises are not met.

Until then, we believe Greenpeace should be clearer on their claims unless they want an industry group to easily, and successfully, cast doubts over their reports.