Submitted: The Two Sides Team October 17, 2012
Apples latest unsustainable design was just greenlighted by the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool registry (EPEAT). And its a clear case of greenwashing.
October 16 2012
by Kyle Wiens – Wired
Apples latest unsustainable design was just greenlighted by the
Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool registry (EPEAT). And
its a clear case of greenwashing.
Apples Retina MacBook Pro the least repairable, least recyclable computer I have encountered in more than a decade of disassembling electronics was just verified Gold, along with four other ultrabooks. This decision demonstrates that the EPEAT standard has been watered down to an alarming degree.
EPEAT is the most popular environmental rating for green electronics.
Instead of legislating that manufacturers produce environmentally
friendly products, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tackles the
problem indirectly. As the worlds largest purchaser of electronics,
the federal government requires at least 95 percent of the products
each agency purchases comply with the EPEAT standard. Used by
procurement officials in large organizations, EPEAT is designed to
encourage manufacturers to create environmentally preferable products.
At best, the interpretation of the EPEAT Gold standard is laughably
out of touch. At worst, it means recyclers a decade from now may be
faced with a mountain of electronic waste they cannot affordably recycle
without custom disassembly fixtures and secret manufacturer
Technology undoubtedly makes our lives better. But the social and
environmental price of manufacturing electronics is high. If were going
to pay that price, its critical that products last as long as
possible. We need strong green electronics standards that encourage
long-lasting products; the future of our planet depends on it.
The Apple-EPEAT Controversy
Apple announced they were leaving the EPEAT registry soon after they
released a slew of new laptops this summer, including the MacBook Pro
with Retina display. We wondered why it was the first Apple laptop in
recent memory not listed in the EPEAT registry: When we took it apart,
we learned it was glued together and completely non-upgradeable. The
RAM was soldered in, the SSD storage used a proprietary interface, the
battery was glued down with impressively strong glue, and the case was
held together using proprietary screws.
We know that Apples products arent green. iPods routinely fail after a couple of years; just about everyone I know has a dead iPod in a drawer somewhere. Apples design trend is toward glued-together products with batteries that may fail after 12 to 24 months they make repair so difficult that people rarely replace the batteries, opting instead to buy a replacement device.
At the same time, Apple publicly discloses that 61 percent of their environmental impact comes from manufacturing everything from mining the coltan in smartphones and the rare-earth elements in computers to factory workers cleaning display glass with toxic chemicals.
The process of manufacturing electronics is incredibly damaging to the
environment. And the more products Apple makes, the larger its impact
especially when the products are designed to require replacement every
Given their penchant for throwaway product design, it seemed
inevitable that Apple would leave the green computer registry. But when
they announced their withdrawal, it sparked a fierce backlash.
Institutional purchasers, including the City of San Francisco, announced they were banning the purchase
of Apple laptops. During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I heard
from reliable sources that numerous federal government agencies,
including the Department of Defense, were prepared to ban procurement of
Just two weeks after leaving the registry, Apple relented and publicly apologized. They told EPEAT they were resubmitting their laptop line, including the Retina MacBook Pro.
Weak Definitions for Key Phrases
Product shall be upgradeable with commonly available tools.
External enclosures shall be easily removable by one person alone
with commonly available tools. Hard disk, digital versatile disc (DVD),
floppy drive can be changed or extended. Memory and cards can be changed
Circuit boards >10 square cm (measured on the largest face),
batteries, and other components any of which contain hazardous
materials shall be safely and easily identifiable and removable.
Does the Retina MacBook meet those criteria? On the surface, it seems
that a product assembled with proprietary screws, glued-in hazardous
batteries, non-upgradeable memory and storage, and several large,
difficult-to-remove circuit boards would fail all three tests.
But its not that simple. It turns out that the phrases commonly
available and safely and easily were not defined in the standard. So
EPEAT asked its Product Verification Committee (PVC), the group responsible for providing the final answer on tricky questions like this. Heres how they responded:
Products could be considered upgradable if they contained an externally accessible port.
Tools required for disassembly or upgrade of registered products
are deemed commonly available if they can be purchased by any
individual or business on the open market.
[The PVC] declined to specify precise parameters for what constitutes easy and safe disassembly or removal of components.
The PVC could have drawn a clear line in the sand with clear
guidelines and goals for manufacturers to design green
products. Instead, they rendered the standard toothless by redefining it
to apply to virtually every laptop on the market.
Watered Down by Industry Consensus
There are two components to EPEAT: a technical standard and a product
registry. Though the EPEAT standard was started by the EPA, it is
actually organized by IEEE.
The standard for computers, IEEE 1680.1, was completed in 2006. The
product registry is administered by EPEAT, Inc. a 501(c)(4)
organization that is not eligible for charitable contributions and
receives its funding from electronics manufacturers and EPA grants.
The standard text was crafted by a consortium heavily weighted toward
industry, using a consensus process biased toward organizations
interested in watering down the standard.
Making changes to the standard requires 75 percent approval from all
participating members. On the most recent EPEAT standard development,
which I participated in as a member of the balloting committee,
manufacturers and other industry members including chemical companies
held 61 percent of the votes. Just 23 percent of the votes were held
by general interest groups and environmental organizations, while
government groups controlled 16 percent of the votes.
Unfortunately, getting highly specific language into a standard like
EPEAT is challenging because manufacturers claim it limits future
innovation. So when language does finally make it into the standard,
its critical to rigorously enforce it.
Gutting the Standard
Where language is ambiguous, decisions must consider the goals of the
standard, or risk negating its purpose entirely. The updated
definitions systematically weaken the 1680.1 standard.
Upgrades. The standards authors saw an
opportunity for preserving product relevance by allowing users to
upgrade their computers. But this revised definition considers
connecting a USB thumb drive to your laptop to be an upgrade. Every
single laptop on the market already meets this new, incredibly
loose criteria. Defining an upgradeable product by the presence of
externally accessible ports is preposterous. Using this definition,
even the iPad widely considered completely non-upgradeable would be
considered upgradeable simply because it has an external port.
Tools. The available on the open market
tool definition is an absolute disaster. Popular electronics sell
millions of units, which create instant markets for repair shops and new
tools for new electronics within weeks of their release. But just
because the tool exists doesnt mean that everyone has it in their
toolbox. One opinion is that because screwdrivers for Apples
proprietary Pentalobe screw are available for purchase on places like
Amazon.com, the Retina computer is in compliance. The other set of
reasoning I heard is that because you can disassemble the computer with a
crowbar, you dont need any uncommon tools for the disassembly. (Note
that most of the EPEAT criteria are aimed at recycling, not repair.)
Easy and Safe. Declining to define safely
and easily is a cop out. Its as good as striking it from the standard.
At the same time, safety is an incredibly important part of the
standard, because there are tens of thousands of people recycling
electronic products real people that spend all day, every day,
dismantling toxic electronics. Heres a stab: a procedure that can be
performed by anyone without access to documentation that does not expose
them to any risk of bodily harm from hazardous chemicals, flammable
batteries, or sharp material. So plastic casings requiring significant
disassembly would be acceptable, but glass that breaks during
disassembly or batteries that easily puncture wouldnt fit the bill.
Standard Disassembly Instructions. EPEAT
disassembled the devices under review with full documentation of each
disassembly process, including its overall duration. The manufacturers
were allowed to provide the lab with instructions to perform the
procedure. This information is necessary to know how to disassemble
complex electronics safely. But there are no requirements that
manufacturers provide anyone else the information: not recyclers, not repair shops, and not their customers.
We Need to Act
Apples MacBook Pro with Retina display is not repairable, its not
upgradeable, and its not easy to disassemble for recycling. Yet it is
EPEAT Gold. The Product Verification Committees decision essentially
greenwashes the Retina.
Our engineers spent over an hour attempting to separate the battery
from the computer, carefully prying to avoid puncturing the battery. If
this computer can earn a gold status, we should be asking ourselves: What cant earn a green rating? With the new definitions, pretty much every computer can be included in the registry.
Were at an inflection point. We can allow the throwaway design to
infect the rest of the computer industry, or we can stand up and tell
EPEAT that this design trend is unacceptable. For EPEAT to be effective,
they need to prove theyre capable of differentiating environmentally
preferable products. The most recent guidance doesnt just gut the
current standard, it makes enforcement of future environmental standards
much more difficult.
We need to act now or it wont be long before every manufacturer is gluing in their batteries, unable to stand the test of time.