Chinese child surrounded by e-waste

In the week that has passed since Steve Jobs’ passing, much has been said about his legacy. The outpouring has ranged from near religious idolatry, to more sober reminders of some of Apple’s serious flaws. Like the rest of the world China, too, has been affected by Jobs and the decisions he made as the genius behind Apple. And I’m not talking about kids selling kidneys for an iPadfake Apple stores or the wealthy elite sporting the latest model iPhone. I’m talking about Chinese impoverished workers.

Back in 2007, Apple was a key target in our work to clean up the electronics industry. For several years preceding Greenpeace had been documenting the terrible conditions of so-called “e-waste villages” such as Guiyu in Guangdong province. There as much as 4,000 tons of toxic electronics were being discarded in these dump-sites every hour. Workers, sometimes underage, and often migrant would then sort through this trash and in the process expose themselves to dangerous amounts of heavy metals and other hazardous chemicals.

Chinese workers surrounded by e-waste

Chinese worker in Guiyu

These workers and their family were not just working, but also living in mountains of e-waste. During our campaign we revealed that 165 Guiyu children were tested for concentrations of lead in their blood, and a devastating 82 percent of the kids had blood/lead levels of over 100, which is considered unsafe by international health experts. The average reading for the group was 149.

On the day of Jobs’ death Greenpeace activist Tom Dowdall wrote of Apple’s participation in our campaign for a greener electronics industry:

Greenpeace and Apple have history. During our campaigning for a greener electronics industry, Apple and Steve Jobs have been central figures. I never met him, but I think it’s safe to say he was never a Greenpeace fan. Despite this, he did make a rare promise in 2007 to be the first computer company to phase out the worst hazardous substances from all Apple products. In 2008 Apple lead the industry with the first computers virtually free of toxic PVC and BFRs. He clearly understood the value to Apple of being the first. Today, all Apple products are free of these hazardous substances and where Apple lead, HP, Acer and others have followed. That alone made Steve Jobs ultimately a valuable ally in the fight for a toxics free future.

There’s still much more for Apple and the rest of industry to do to be truly sustainable, both in terms of toxic free products and a clean energy future. But today is a day to reflect that among all of Steve Jobs achievements in the technology industry, one of the less well known ones is one of the most important.

The work is far from over. New revelations continue to unfold in regards to toxic pollution in the electronics industry, Apple included. The chain of influence between Jobs to Apple to the electronics industry to workers slowly being poisoned in mounds of e-waste is clear. We can only hope that the leaders of the industry decide to make that influence a positive one, rather than negative.

Electronics dirty secret

What happens to your mobile or computer when you throw it away? Did you know it could end up dumped in Asia and scrapped by hand in appalling conditions?