Apple’s latest unsustainable design was just greenlighted by the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool registry (EPEAT). And it’s a clear case of greenwashing.

Apple’s 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 EPA tackles the problem indirectly. As the world’s largest purchaser of electronics, the federal government requires at least 95% 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: it claims proprietary Pentalobe screwdrivers are ‘commonly available tools’ and a USB thumb drive is an ‘upgrade.’ At worst, it may mean that recyclers a decade from now will be faced with a mountain of electronic waste they cannot affordably recycle without custom disassembly fixtures and secret manufacturer information.

Technology undoubtedly makes our lives better. But the social and environmental price of manufacturing electronics is high. If we’re going to pay that price, it’s 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 Retina MacBook Pro and 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 secured to the case with impressively strong glue, and the case was held together using proprietary screws.

We know that Apple’s products aren’t green: iPods routinely fail after a couple years. Just about everyone I know has a dead iPod in a drawer somewhere. Apple’s design trend is toward glued-together products with batteries that may fail after 12-24 months—they make repair so difficult that people rarely replace the batteries, opting instead to buy a replacement device.

Creating products designed to require replacement every couple years has a substantial impact. Apple publicly discloses that 61% 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. The more products Apple makes, the larger its impact.

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, DC, I heard from reliable sources that numerous federal government agencies, including the Department of Defense, were prepared to ban procurement of Apple products.

Apple was surprised by the level of public outrage and, just two weeks after leaving the registry, relented and publicly apologized. They resubmitted their laptop line to the EPEAT registry—including the Retina MacBook Pro.

Linguistic Nitpicking

At the heart of the recent EPEAT decision are new, weak definitions for key phrases in the standard.

With the Retina MacBook Pro, EPEAT felt there were three specific concerns about the product design that merited further investigation. Here are the relevant portions of the standard:

  • “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 or extended.”
  • “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 it’s not that simple. It turns out that the phrases ‘commonly available’ and ‘safely and easily’ were not defined in the standard. So EPEAT asked their Product Verification Committee (PVC), the group responsible for providing the final answer on tricky questions like this. Here’s 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 had an opportunity to draw a clear line in the sand. They could have set clear guidelines and goals for manufacturers that want to design green products. Instead, they rendered the standard toothless by redefining 1680.1 to apply to virtually every laptop on the market.

Environmentally Preferable Products

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% 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% of the votes. Just 23% of the votes were held by general interest groups and environmental organizations, while government groups controlled 16% 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, it’s critical that it is rigorously enforced.

A Gutted 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 standard’s authors saw an opportunity for preserving product relevance by allowing users to upgrade their computers internally. But this revised definition considers connecting an external device such as 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 because it has an external port.

Tools:  What tools are ‘commonly available’? One opinion is that because screwdrivers for Apple’s 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 don’t need any uncommon tools for the disassembly. (It’s important to note that the most of the EPEAT criteria are aimed at recycling, not repair.) 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 doesn’t mean that everyone has it in their toolbox.

Easy and Safe: Declining to define ‘safely and easily’ is a cop out. It’s 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. Here’s 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.” Plastic casings requiring significant disassembly would be acceptable, but glass that breaks during disassembly or batteries that easily puncture wouldn’t 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.

The Bottom Line

Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina display is not repairable, it’s not upgradeable, and it’s not easy to disassemble for recycling. But it is EPEAT Gold. The Product Verification Committee’s 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 same computer can earn a gold status, we should be asking ourselves, “What exactly can’t earn a green rating?” With these new definitions, pretty much every computer can be included in the registry.

We’re 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 that they are capable of differentiating environmentally preferable products. The most recent guidance doesn’t just gut the current standard, it makes enforcement of future environmental standards much more difficult. We need to act now — or it won’t be long before every manufacturer is gluing in their batteries. Otherwise, our products will be light and thin, but unable to stand the test of time.

This article originally ran with Wired.

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