For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


For years, Dell Computer Corp. was known as one of the tech industry’s environmental slackers; in 2003, green groups gave it an “F” on a “clean computer” report card. Today, Dell has a program to recycle almost all of its PCs, has purged new products of six toxic substances, and is working to remove other hazardous materials.

But Dell didn’t get religion on its own: Its conversion was prompted by a tough new set of European Union regulations that is transforming American business in a way no U.S. law has in recent years. Last summer, the Europeans began enforcing new restrictions on lead, mercury, and four other hazardous substances, flat-out banning violators from selling to Britain and the Continent. Palm had to stop shipping its Treo 650 (a move that sent its share price plunging), and Apple admitted that it had “withdrawn a few products from sale in Europe,” though it wouldn’t say which ones. In all, 75 percent of U.S. tech companies have eliminated the banned substances from their products. “It has just caused an enormous amount of teeth-gnashing and a lot of reactive scrambling,” says Michael Kirschner, president of Design Chain Associates, a consulting firm.

The electronics regulations are just the beginning. By the end of 2006, the EU aims to pass a broader toxics law that radically revises how companies must evaluate potential dangers: Rather than being presumed safe until proved dangerous, chemicals will have to be shown to be harmless (though exactly how has yet to be determined). Dell broke ranks recently with industry skeptics and the Bush administration to support the law, joining European manufacturers such as Nokia in a pledge to phase out dozens of potentially harmful substances. Other companies, including Apple and Motorola, have resisted making such commitments. “The irony is everyone thinks Apple is hip and cutting-edge,” says Alexandra McPherson, project director for the nonprofit advocacy group Clean Production Action. “This really showed they’re still behind in understanding the global marketplace.”

Back home, federal inaction has spawned a confusing, and sometimes contradictory, hodgepodge of state, local, and corporate toxics programs. For example, last year California launched a computer-monitor recycling program funded through a tax on new computers; in Washington state and Maine, manufacturers are responsible for recycling their products. Dell now has a nationwide policy of taking back all its used computers, just as it is required to do in Europe; Apple, by contrast, only accepts old machines in trade for new ones. “What the industry needs,” says consultant Kirschner, “is something that’s national and works.”

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.