How I Exposed A Major Corporation's Environmental Irresponsibility
And Got Called A Hillbilly By Gizmodo.
By James Johnston (a.k.a David Lawrance)
For a long time I was reticent to write this piece, for fear it would tarnish my reputation amongst temp agencies. But since my reputation amongst temp agencies is as a guy who's handy at shoveling chemicals, picking up melted Maltesers and stacking CRT televisions that match his own bodyweight, I decided reputation be damned.
A few years ago, I was working for X Recruitment (not their real name) and one day I got the call to go to a Sydney-based warehouse, um, Deep Throat Logistics (not their real name) that handled the storage of many products for a popular computer and smartphone manufacturer, Pear (not their real name). For a week it was the usual shit - shrink-wrapping pallets, loading trucks, emptying bins, counting stock, etcetera, etcetera, yawn, yawn. Until, one day, I received an unusual assignment...
My supervisor, who I would give an alias to, except that I've so thoroughly forgotten his name that any alias I give might end up being his real name, directed myself and five coworkers to a corner of the warehouse where there were nine pallets stacked with computer equipment. The equipment looked only slightly used - there was a lot of new model laptops, towers and peripherals, but most weren't boxed or were in boxes with repair notices taped to the outside. The supervisor told us the equipment was unable to be repaired and that we were to destroy it. Then, in a scene reminiscent of the movie HOSTEL, we were presented with a variety of tools with which to destroy the computers. Laid out before us were hammers, screwdrivers and ball-peen hammers (which I believe are another member of the hammer family). Our only instructions were to make sure there was nothing salvageable from the cruel wreckage (those are actually my words - I believe his were: "Smash 'em good, boys").
I should announce at this point that I have long been a fan of this particular company's (okay, okay, it was Apple) computer products and as I brought my ball-peen hammer (I just like saying it) down again and again, I couldn't help but transpose the face of my own beloved laptop onto the one whose screen I was decimating. It was seriously a little disturbing, an emotion heightened when we tried turning on the laptops and found that several of them seemed to be in perfect working order. Indeed, some of the repair notices taped to the side noted that while the machine only had a minor problem, a replacement unit was required. I spoke to a coworker who'd been working there for several months and he claimed that Apple often opted to replace units rather than repair them anyway, as it was cheaper than sending the unit to China for repair.
Once the units were smashed, we tossed them into large bins and once those were filled (we filled several over the course of the day) they were emptied into a gigantic dumpster next to the warehouse. But the destroyed computers created so much debris that it piled up higher than the rim of that dumpster and we were told that one of the managers had complained that it was visible to passers-by. Someone then had to jump on the forklift and use it to compress the material down below the rim of the dumpster.
It was while we were filling the last bin that a few of us took our mobile phones out and began taking photos of the piles of laptops, towers and servers. I suppose we realised the monetary value of what we had destroyed that day and wanted a record to show our friends, in case they didn't believe us. When I got home, I emailed a picture I had taken to A Friend (not his real name), who I knew was a fellow Mac user and, more importantly, a freelance journalist who often wrote tech pieces, sometimes for Mac-centric magazines and websites.
DAVID: How's this for horrible: I am working in the Apple warehouse in Sydney and today they had us smash $200,000+ worth of imacs, G5s and macbooks with hammers so people couldn't scavenge them out of the dumpster. They were apparently irrepairable but I managed to turn on several macbooks and they seemed pretty okay to me. It was devastating.
FRIEND: Dude, that is incredible! I don't know how common knowledge that would be (and knowing Apple I Imagine not), and that could be a big story. Could you talk about it without them realising it was you and getting into trouble (anonymously)?
DAVID: Hell, I've got photographic evidence! Let's go Watergate on this shit. You can be Woodward and I'll be Bernstein...
<I attached the photo of the smashed macs at the top of the article>
FRIEND: Holy crap.
Give me a day or two and I'll email you some questions.
So this friend did email me some questions and I discreetly asked around to get some answers, although the guys I was game enough to ask were casual workers like myself and knew little more than I did. To ask a manager would have aroused too much suspicion, but what I did do was try to get some more photographs for my friend to use in his story. It was a case of me wandering the aisles of the warehouse and surreptitiously taking out my mobile phone and taking photos. I got general photos of the warehouse, but since the computer demolition assignment was over, I didn't get anything damning. But it was exciting and I felt like I was doing something important, as though I was going undercover to expose corporate wrongdoing.
My friend went off to write the article and I didn't hear anything for seven months, during which time I'd switched temp agencies and continued working dumb jobs while I studied Screenwriting at the Australian Film Television and Radio School. Then one day I got a call from my friend, telling me that APC Online wanted to publish his article - but that due to my friend's close relationship with Apple through his writing for various tech sites, he was going to have the article published under the name of APC's Online Editor, Dan Warne. He was concerned that Apple's influence might extend to the editors of the magazines and sites he wrote for and that Apple might be able to effectively end his career as a tech journalist. I (hesitantly) agreed to let him use my name, figuring it would lend the article more credibility and, again, not worrying too much about my warehouse reputation (especially since I'd left X Recruitment months earlier). My bravery turned out not to count for much, as Dan Warne gave me an alias just in case there were any legal ramifications from Apple. This is how I became James Johnston, filmmaker/factory worker, in the APC article, which you can read here.
The article was reported on Macblogz.com in the US the same day. The fallout began two days later - but not for Apple. Rather it was me who bore the brunt of geek-fury, when Gizmodo in the US ran their own commentary on the APC article, in which I was called "an Aussie construction worker" and a hillbilly and the veracity of my claims were called into question, mostly because it was "on the word of someone who won't give his real name". I'd like to note that unless that particular Gizmodo writer's name had been changed by deed poll to Gizmodo US Edition, he or she didn't give their real name either. Perhaps out of fear of hillbilly retribution?
Well, that was as bad as it got for me. I never heard anything from X Recruitment about the article, so either they never picked me as James Johnston or it was never deduced which Apple warehouse I had worked at. Who knows how many warehouses they use (I have worked at two warehouses in Sydney which distribute Apple products) and how often this kind of wanton waste occurs at the order of Apple or their subcontractors. Apple Australia Marketing Director Rob Small, in reaction to APC's claims, insisted: "Anything we recycle is done responsibly through certified recyclers. Nothing goes to landfill." (Read Apple Australia's Recycling Policy here). As a guy who emptied his fair share of bins at this particular warehouse, I know that to be totally false in this instance. There was one recycle bin that was strictly for cardboard only. The only other large bin, being the dumpster we compacted the broken machines into, was also used for cigarette butts and food scraps, old shrink wrap and broken wooden pallets. I don't know any recycling plant that's going to sort those items out.
I did feel a twang of guilt about the part I played in all this. At the end of the day, I got paid to destroy working computers that contributed to landfill. The wastefulness of it makes me feel a little ill. And while the whistleblowing didn't have the desired effect - it "didn't blow up in Apple's face", as my friend reflected today - hopefully it makes someone at Apple think twice before they next give the order for working computers to be destroyed, simply because it's the easiest thing to do.
I honestly didn't write this piece because I thought that what I did was brave or selfless. I'm writing a script at the moment about a real life whistleblower who I consider to be a genuine hero. It's about an Australian nurse who defied her training to become a spy in her hospital, in order to uncover the truth about a doctor whose revolutionary treatment was killing patients. She knew this doctor was suspected of having murdered one of his patients in the patient's home and there was every chance he would be willing to kill to protect his life's work. So this nurse risked her own life to obtain the evidence that saved potentially dozens of lives and chanced her career by using her real name and giving evidence at a Royal Commission. And what did she get in return? She was never able to get work as a nurse again, because no hospital believed they could trust her not to expose any wrongdoing she might encounter there. So all I risked was a job I didn't care about (hated, in point of fact) and got called a hillbilly. But this woman was denied the chance to ever work as a nurse again, all because she did what nurses are supposed to do: she saved lives.
I guess what this piece is trying to say, and what hopefully my movie will convey, but in far more exciting, cinematic circumstances, is that if you see something being done that you know is wrong, always speak up, and that no one should ever be punished for doing the right thing.