Red Over Greenpeace

Another day, another whine from Greenpeace.

This time, the would-be environmental group complains that several large PC makers are “backtracking” on promises to eliminate certain chemicals from their computers.

In a press release issued today, Greenpeace cites Hewlett Packard, Dell and Lenovo – for “failing to improve their low scores.”

Dell and Lenovo are called out for delaying their migraton to non-PVC and BFR materials, while HP is cited for “[postponing] its 2007 commitment to phase out PVC and BFRs from its computer products from 2009 to 2011. [I]t is not even putting PVC and BFR-reduced products on the market.”

“Greenpeace takes voluntary commitments very seriously and holds companies accountable for their promises. There are no excuses for backtracking, and no reason for these companies not to have PCs free of PVC and BFRs now,” said Greenpeace International Toxics Campaigner Tom Dowdall in the statement.

Which is great, except it’s also wrong.

Keep in mind those scores are set and tabulated by Greenpeace. And note that those targets are constantly moving. Greenpeace exists only to wag its finger at large corporations. It needs enemies in order to survive, even if that means conjuring up ghosts and bogeymen.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace also ignores that the science does not yet support the elimination of BFRs, and in fact, may suggest otherwise. As Dr. Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute and a member of Chemists Without Borders noted in her blog in May, “it is difficult to make a causal connection between chemical exposure and health impacts.”

And it ignores that all the major PC vendors now have significant takeback programs in place, providing some level of protection against these chemicals entering the waste stream.

While it pats Apple on the back, claiming its new PC lines “virtually free of PVC and completely BFR-free,” Greenpeace misses that Apple is perhaps the worst of the bunch when it comes to auditing and ensuring its vendors — which include Foxconn — follow acceptable labor practices.

BFRs may be bad, but what’s the alternative? Remind me: Does fire cause pollution?

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About Mike

Mike Buetow is president of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association ( He previously was editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly magazine, the leading publication for electronics manufacturing, and PCD&F, the leading publication for printed circuit design and fabrication. He spent 21 years as vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversaw all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 30 years' experience in the electronics industry, including six years at IPC, an electronics trade association, at which he was a technical projects manager and communications director. He has also held editorial positions at SMT Magazine, community newspapers and in book publishing. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikebuetow

8 thoughts on “Red Over Greenpeace

  1. Manufacturers have historically not been responsive to any groups or science regarding environmental contaminants until forced. I have consulted with many companies regarding EU compliance, and the general attitude in the US is poor at best. The only motivation they find is avoiding potential lawsuits and fines. In general, Canadian companies have a significantly more socially responsible take on the entire issue (I am American, not Canadian)…

    There are many examples where groups like Greenpeace were on the forefront of these issues. The science may not be as clear as we’d like, but if you look at recent increases of autism, allergies and general autoimmune, even reproductive disorders over the last 50 years is astounding. Rather than testing after the fact, and after people have been poisoned and died, maybe we should be proactive. Think hexavalet chromium.

    Living in the area where Love Canal exists, I have a constant reminder of the lack of conscious American corporations sometimes demonstrate. Sounds like you belong more on Fox News than in this publication.

  2. Mike, you are taking Dr. Blum’s comment way out of context – I know Arlene quite well; this is a fact but there is a whole “however” clause that follows this in conversations with her. To your question “BFRs may be bad, but what’s the alternative? Remind me: Does fire cause pollution?” Maybe you should review Blum’s presentation entitled “Do Flame Retardants Save Lives?”… “Preventing ignition is less expensive, more effective, and healthier than adding toxics to slow ignition”. There are other ways to deal with the potential for fire.

    The reality is, as Alan says, that incidences of previously uncommon human disorders, and animal population declines and extinctions, have dramatically increased as the use of uncontrolled synthetic chemicals has increased. There are many studies showing issues with TBBPA (and DecaDBE for that matter). The EU studies you focus on are based on old data and are of questionable quality, based on discussions I’ve had with scientists. Focusing on a single study, when in fact it is very difficult to find a one-to-one correlation between a specific chemical and a health/environment effect (e.g., how do you eliminate variables when everyone has at least 150 to 300 synthetic substances that serve no known purpose in their bloodstream and fatty tissues? This is one of the challenges Blum alludes to) and there are hundreds of studies in peer-reviewed literature that show possible problems, tells me you need to do a little more research before coming to such a drastic conclusion. You seem intent in your writings to present an “ignorant industry” perspective demanding that industry should simply be left alone because they know best and this is how we’ve always done it. Not all industry is this ignorant of how ignorant we are – there are many companies that are understanding that there is an increasingly important and complex issue around the myriad of chemical substances used in products and we must get to the bottom of it and solve it.

    Now, regarding Greenpeace, yes they are noisy, have their own agenda, and are often not science-based. But these companies made foolish promises; I remember questioning just how they expected to eliminate these substances in 2 years or less…so it was predictable. Now they’re being called on the carpet for it. I see no issue there.

    Bottom lines are twofold: first, we need better toxicity/ecotoxicity information on chemical substances and need to know better how to specify substances. Second, industry needs to not be so afraid of NGOs, and Greenpeace in particular. Only by understanding the real issues better will industry be able to deal with NGO pressures in a more sensible manner. Some NGOs have very good points, backed up by solid data, to make. Some don’t.

    Finally, you might find it educational to attend Dr. Blum’s next Flame Retardant Dilemma workshop at UC Berkeley on September 25. See (that’s where you can find the aforementioned presentation, by the way).

  3. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for writing. I don’t disagree in principle with anything you said — except maybe the context comment. But the risk here is that we substitute something known to be bad — but with some effort controllable — with something else, the risks of which we may not know or diminish because the literature is incomplete. I actually did see Dr. Blum’s presentation (that’s where that quote comes from), and as you note, finding a one-to-one correlation is extremely difficult. So the conclusion I drew is that with all the substances we need to account for, why single out TBBPA?

    As for her comment, “Preventing ignition is less expensive, more effective, and healthier than adding toxics to slow ignition,” I would argue that it sounds too much like the “reform before revenue” mantra taken up by many politicians. It sounds good, but it avoids the hard question of just what costs the public is willing to assume in order to *limit* ignition — in my opinion preventing ignition simply is unattainable.

    It’s far too similar to the lead phaseout, in which all the literature (including an extensive 1996 study by NCMS) pointed to the alternatives being worse both to the environment and to human health, yet the industry for the most part capitulated. Why make the same mistake?

    As for whether the PC makers overpromised, that they may have. But so what? They are under no legislative and dicey at best scientific impetus to do anything — and, importantly, the consumers don’t care. Moreover, they have all launched extensive takeback programs. So why all the noise from Greenpeace? It seems awfully self-serving to me.

  4. Alan,

    I’m still laughing over the idea that I should be on Fox News. Definitely the first time anyone has suggested that to me.

  5. Yeah Mike, we’ll put you up next to Hannity ;o) By the way, Arlene agrees that you took that comment out of context.

    Anyway, you’re right about the risk of picking the wrong substitute – we’ve already made that incredibly expensive mistake with lead-free solder. It’s no better, environmentally, than our venerable SnPb. And that’s madness. Allowing governments to do that again – or NGOs to drive us there – is unacceptable.

    The industry – all manufacturing industries, in fact – need to gain a much better understanding of chemicals and toxicology so we can do a better job of alternatives assessment and selection up front. And regulations need to be written that comprehend the problems the manufacturing users of chemical substances face. Look at California Green Chemistry (AB 1879) – it REQUIRES alternatives assessment…just what that means and how it is to be accomplished is under intense debate; it’s just a leading indicator of what’s to come.

    You raise TBBPA (not the only instance of Br in electronics). I don’t understand, personally, the singling out of TBBPA either. Reacted in PCBs, the only issues with it are exposure during manufacturing of the laminates and improper recovery (open pit burning, for example). If the electronics industry wanted to keep using it they would demand absolute control of the post-EOL supply chain. We spent $32B (now probably nearing $45B) to comply with RoHS; do you think it’s worth coming up with a little more to solve this little nut of a problem? There are many other far worse and far less well-understood substances used in electronics. As those become more well-studied and visible we can expect regulators and NGOs to pressure or require the chemical manufacturers and downstream industries to stop using them (or not; remember Norway considering banning arsenic until they realized it would render them wireless-free? Hah!). Right now it, and chlorine and other bromines are the canaries in the coal mine…primarily due to the improper incineration scenario and the NGOs that have a focus on take-back. You just wait. Look at the EPA DfE study on TBBPA; I think it’s a waste of time and effort for all kinds of reasons.

    The “prevent the ignition” comment just says we need to think differently about solutions to challenges. We shouldn’t necessarily simply replace one substance with another (the “drop-in replacement” scenario that just doesn’t exist – one of the problems with the EPA study mentioned above). We’re in this situation because we didn’t have to take environment into consideration when we selected materials since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Now we do; how will that change thinking? Could result in lots of invention, who knows? For example, what Blum is specifically referring to is that polyurethane foam in furniture in California is required to be fire-retarded because it’s so flammable. Problem is, by the time the fabric or whatever covers the foam is burning it’s too high a heat rate for the fire retardant in the foam to have any effect; the foam burns anyway. The solution must be more holistic: use slower burning fabrics/special weaves that withstand a burning ember for a few minutes combined with cigarettes (the primary source of furniture fires) that self-extinguish after a few minutes. That will actually reduce the incidence of fire, not adding toxic fire retardants (i.e. PBDEs).

    And Greenpeace is making noise simply because they have an excuse to; the PC makers overpromised and underdelivered…make hay while the sun shines, kids.

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