In case you haven’t heard the enviro-explosions on the blogosphere, within the past week or so Apple, the maker of MacBook computers, iPads and iPhones, inexplicably removed 39 of its products from EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) registry, which certifies products’ environmental sustainability, based on a number of factors. Then, at the end of a week of condemnations, Apple about-faced and re-listed its products on Friday.
EPEAT, by the way, is used by government agencies and many corporations, some of which are required to procure only EPEAT-certified computers. The city of San Francisco announced a ban on procuring Apple products as a result. EPEAT is preparing to expand from certifying computers to including televisions and imaging devices, making its reach and influence that much greater.
What was this all about? Apple hasn’t said much beyond a couple of vaguely written statements, but it appears that the design of the new MacBook Pro with Retina display does not meet EPEAT requirements for easy disassembly so it can be recycled properly. Instead, its battery is glued to the inside of the case, making it very hard to take apart without puncturing the lithium polymer battery and leaking toxic goo.
This was not good news for electronics recyclers, who without the proper tools and time may resort to shredding the batteries with the chassis or not recycling the units at all. Neither would be good for the environment.
And so Apple faced a firestorm of criticism for putting its design philosophy ahead of environmental concerns and for promoting disposable products unfit for repair, reuse and even recycling. “It’s wrong-headed design. We want to see companies promoting reuse and promoting recycling,” says Barbara Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.
Apple has since relented and relisted its products—for now. But this drama isn’t over. There remain several unanswered questions and issues that this affair has brought to light.
1. Will Apple and perhaps others continue to use glues instead of screws in their products? Especially as products get smaller and must economize space, will this become a design trend? Apple is the biggest design trendsetter in electronics today. Think of all the tablets now available, those bound for the recycling centers in the next few years (and hopefully not landfills), and the advent of super-skinny ultrabooks, which are crosses between notebook computers and tablets. If those products start using more glues versus screws, electronics recyclers will have to adjust. Or not recycle them responsibly.
2. Why make products so disposable? Key tenets of sustainable design are to resue and recycle. Apple, which prides itself on its high environmental standards, appears to be making its products harder and harder to repair and upgrade. You’re either forced to take your iWhatever to a Genius Bar or become a serious DIYer, just to change a battery. But let’s face it: Apple is in the business of selling products, and selling products in consumer electronics means planned obsolescence. More and more products today can get software and firmware upgrades—and that’s great—but the way technology evolves with new innovations and feature sets, higher processing power and resolutions, makes the dream of super-long-life, upgradable components a pipe dream. Still, manufacturers can do a lot better. And Apple could lead the way. If it chooses to.
3. Was Apple taking a hard line by removing its EPEAT-qualified products form the listings? It certainly looked that way. EPEAT reps have admitted the IEEE 1680.1 standard on which EPEAT’s computer product registry is based could use an update—and it is due for one. So could Apple’s stance have been a negotiating ploy, perhaps to get an EPEAT concession on using glues instead of screws? Kyle of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition says such a stance would not go over well with the other stakeholders at the table.
Still, one can’t help but wonder if Apple wants that sort of concession, perhaps making a glued product like the MacBook Pro with Retina Display EPEAT-certifiable—if, for the sake or argument, Apple does so much in recycling and taking its products back. Kyle says that, too, wouldn’t work. Though Apple reports it has taken back 70 percent of the company’s weight in sales from seven years ago (to allow for product life cycle), Kyle says companies like Apple do not get near that amount of their products back and that the number includes those taken by other recyclers Apple pays as well.
A better bet is Apple pushing to get more weight in the EPEAT standard for sustainability features it does well, so it can still register a product using glues.
Apple has said in its statements that it wants to work with EPEAT to make the IEEE 1680.1 standard “stronger.” In the letter released Friday from Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering Bob Mansfield:
We think the IEEE 1680.1 standard could be a much stronger force for protecting the environment if it were upgraded to include advancements like [Apple’s practice of eliminating PVC and brominated flame retardants from products and exceeding Energy Star 5.2 standards for energy efficiency]. This standard, on which the EPEAT rating system is based, is an important measuring stick for our industry and its products.
Our relationship with EPEAT has become stronger as a result of this experience, and we look forward to working with EPEAT as their rating system and the underlying IEEE 1680.1 standard evolve. Our team at Apple is dedicated to designing products that everyone can be proud to own and use.
If Apple goes to the IEEE 1680.1 table planning to use more glues instead of screws, a battle could ensue. And the result of that battle could set a course for electronic product design moving forward.
(By the way, the MacBook Pros with Retina display have been voluntarily listed in the registry by Apple. We’ll see if they’re removed upon review by EPEAT.)
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Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates