EPEAT certifies controversial MacBook Pro

EPEAT certifies controversial MacBook Pro

By Jake Thomas, Resource Recycling

*CORRECTION: This article originally referred to Apple's MacBook Pro as "previously-rejected" by EPEAT.  In fact, the laptop was never formally rejected by the organization. E-Scrap News regrets the error.

The Electronics Product Environmental Assessment Tool, a registry of environmentally friendly electronics, has wrapped up an examination of five different "ultra-thin" notebooks, concluding that these items conform to its green rating system requirements. But with the organization accepting Apple's MacBook Pro as EPEAT-compliant, many are now crying foul.

The products in question included laptops from Apple, Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba that had come under scrutiny last summer for many of their design choices, which some said made the products difficult to disassemble, repair and recycle. According to Sarah O'Brien, director of outreach and communications for EPEAT, the review was launched specifically to address concerns raised about these products. The controversy coincided with Apple announcing that it was withdrawing from EPEAT, only to reverse its decision in the face of strong public disappointment with the move.

EPEAT's investigation looked into whether these new types of laptops did in fact meet the registry's requirements for upgradability. Specifically, EPEAT looked into whether or not tools to perform upgrades to these laptops were readily available to the public and if batteries and other parts could be easily removed from the devices.

As part of the examination, EPEAT contracted with a technical test lab to purchase these products on the open market and disassembled them using instructions from each manufacturer. Lab personnel were not trained recycling professionals, a decision made by EPEAT to ensure that the results reflected the time and ease of disassembly of someone not particularly well-versed in taking apart electronics. Total disassembly time for each product was under 20 minutes. Removal of batteries took between 30 seconds and two minutes.

In June, the online repair directory iFixit found that Apple's newly redesigned MacBook Pro laptops were not designed to be taken apart for upgrades and recycling. One of the biggest criticisms of the devices was that Apple used industrial-strength glue to seal the laptop's battery to its case, making repair and recycling more difficult

"If the battery is glued to the case it means you can't recycle the case and you can't recycle the battery," Robert Frisbee, EPEAT CEO, told The Wall Street Journal's CIO Journal. O'Brien said that EPEAT no longer has that concern about the product's battery following the investigation.

"[The test lab] followed the instructions, and it was, according to them and according to their documentation, easy to remove [the battery]," said O'Brien.

O'Brien didn't get into specifics of how the batteries were removed, citing concerns about confidentiality.

Following the disassembly, the test lab found that all the products met EPEAT's requirements. EPEAT's Product Verification Committee has approved the review.

However, things aren't so straightforward, according to a statement issued by Casey Harrell, an IT analyst with Greenpeace.

"Apple wanted to change the EPEAT standards when it knew its MacBook Pro with Retina Display would likely not qualify for the registry in July of this year — now EPEAT has reinterpreted its rules to include the MacBook Pro and ultrabooks. Is it a coincidence?" said Harrell in a prepared statement. "It's unclear why EPEAT caved in, but the impact is that EPEAT has confused consumers and businesses who want to buy green electronics that can be repaired and will last a long time, and sets a dangerous trend for the burgeoning market of ultrabooks."

According to Harrell, "consumers will not risk violating their product warranty to change a battery using instructions they don’t have with tools they don't own, and are sure to conclude that the entire process is too complicated and instead buy a new product."

As a result, electronics will have a shorter lifespan and more e-waste will be generated, according to Harrell. According to Harrell, if companies can't make products that can be easily fixed, they shouldn't be sold.

A blistering blog post on iFixit's website by the organization's founder, Kyle Wiens, called EPEAT's renewed approval for the devices a "clear case of greenwashing," going so far as to say the "standard has been watered down to an alarming degree."

"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," reads the post. "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."

In the post, Wiens notes that iFixit's engineers took over an hour to remove the battery from the new MacBook Pro. Additionally, he faulted EPEAT for using a very liberal interpretation of phrases such as "commonly available" and "safely and easily" in applying the standards to the laptops.

O'Brien called the allegation that EPEAT relaxed its standard to appease Apple or any other manufacturer "a fantasy."

"We would never compromise the quality of our verification, which is the fundamental bedrock of our system, in order to please one of the 50 manufacturers we work with," she said.

O'Brien also noted that EPEAT is on the verge of revising its standards to keep them apace with technological advancements and their environmental impacts, as well as to challenge manufacturers to make their products even more environmentally friendly. She encouraged Greenpeace to provide input in this process.

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