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EPEAT's flip-flop on 'unrepairable' MacBook Pro reveals a muddied mess of green tech standards

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High honors sink to new lows for 'eco-friendly' gadgets

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ifixit mbp retina teardown
ifixit mbp retina teardown

There was a considerable backlash when Apple announced earlier this year that it would be removing its products from EPEAT, a widely-used product registry which grades electronics based on their compliance with environmental standards — enough to warrant a swift backpeddling from then-hardware boss Bob Mansfield. Now the program's awarding of its 'Gold' standard to five ultra-thin laptops, including the infamously "unrepairable" MacBook Pro with Retina display, has raised serious concerns that EPEAT is bending to intense lobbying pressure from manufacturers who want the certification without meeting the standards.

In an editorial for Wired, iFixit founder Kyle Wiens cites huge discrepancies between EPEAT's product standards and the interpretation of those standards by the group's Product Verification Committee (PVC). For the Retina MacBook, the PVC broadly interpreted EPEAT's "upgradability" requirements to include any device possessing "an externally accessible port," meaning that by the committee's definition, a USB dongle is considered a hardware upgrade.

Another requirement which demands hazardous components like batteries to be "safely and easily identifiable and removable” has also been sidestepped. And a criterion dictating that products be serviceable using "widely available tools" — meant to contest the use of proprietary screws requiring special-use drivers — has been reinterpreted to mean tools that "can be purchased by any individual or business on the open market."

"At best, the interpretation of the EPEAT Gold standard is laughably out of touch."

"At best, the interpretation of the EPEAT Gold standard is laughably out of touch," writes Wiens. "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 information."

Unlike EnergyStar, which certifies electronics based on reduced power consumption, EPEAT judges from a variety of different criteria. These are things which can potentially play an enormous role in the reduction of e-waste, such as easily replaceable components and the use of materials with low toxicity that can be recycled at the device's end-of-life.

When Apple registered the Retina MacBook Pro with EPEAT back in July, many doubted it would meet this criteria. The machine had been heavily criticised for its glued-down battery and screen, soldered-on RAM, and repair-unfriendly proprietary components. Even a team of seasoned repair specialists from iFixit found the device nearly impossible to dismantle without injury, awarding it a 1 out of 10 "repairability" score, their lowest rating ever.

“If the battery is glued to the case it means you can’t recycle the case and you can’t recycle the battery.”

That doesn't bode well for the future of sustainable tech, both in terms of the environment and consumers looking to save cash by squeezing an extra year or two of life out of their device. EPEAT's own CEO, Robert Frisbee, has admitted this kind of design is unsustainable, saying that “If the battery is glued to the case it means you can’t recycle the case and you can’t recycle the battery.”

And yet, in a report released last week, EPEAT declared that the machine (along with four similar ultrabooks made by Toshiba, Lenovo, and Samsung) qualifies for its Gold standard, suggesting that either EPEAT's PVC has begun making exceptions for the new breed of ultra-thin laptops, or the standard has become so diluted that it hovers on the verge of meaninglessness.

This kind of "greenwashing" is of course nothing new. From "clean coal" to "organic" fabric softeners, marketers, politicians, and industry lobbyists routinely prey on our collective eco-conscience, applying labels that correspond to vague and loosely-defined environmental standards, or sometimes nothing at all. Unfortunately, in the United States, EPEAT is pretty much the only game in town for consumer electronics — if the standard becomes co-opted, there's not really anywhere else to go.

Unsurprisingly, Wiens, who was a member of the most recent EPEAT balloting committee, says the decisions are a result of overwhelming lobbying pressure from the manufacturing sector. "The issue is that the people at the manufacturers are paid to sit in on these meetings, and no one on the consumer advocacy side is," he said over the phone, half-joking that maybe someone should do a Kickstarter to get proper representation.

The good news is that EPEAT's standard for consumer electronics is due for an upgrade next year, and consumer groups may have a chance to change it for the better by making definitions less vague. "There's a window of opportunity here to affect change," Wiens says, "so there's a real need for consumer advocacy groups to step up."