Back in July, Apple made waves when they removed all of their products from the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) registry. The company said that their design direction was no longer consistent with EPEAT requirements, namely their focus on moving towards lighter, thinner products like the MacBook Pro with Retina Display that used industrial strength glue to keep parts in place as opposed to screws.
That glue it instead of screw it approach meant that parts like the battery were now impossible to remove without special tools, which hinders disassembly for repair or recycling.
After public outcry over their stepping away from EPEAT, Apple quickly changed their minds and once again listed all of their products with the registry, which gave everyone hope that they would be working towards better repairability with their products. But the story doesn't end there.
Just last Friday, EPEAT announced that it was certifying five ultrathin notebooks, including the MacBook Pro with Retina Display.
EPEAT said this in their press release, "The findings released today are the culmination of a lengthy review of a number of specific criteria – and of a broad array of notebook products registered in the EPEAT system. Specific areas of concern addressed included whether products could be upgraded, if tools were commonly available to accomplish upgrades, and whether materials of concern including batteries could be easily removed from ultrathin products."
These findings are surprising since they are in direct conflict with what Robert Frisbee, CEO of EPEAT, said back in July when Apple initially walked away from the program. At the time he said that the MacBook Pro with Retina Display wouldn't be eligible for certification because “If the battery is glued to the case it means you can’t recycle the case and you can’t recycle the battery."
EPEAT says its independent Product Verification Committee (PVC) were able to confirm that the ultrabooks met the requirements for certification. But there is one part of the press release that hints that they left the standards a little murky in order to include these new lighter, thinner laptops:
The EPEAT PVC determined that, based on the clear wording of the relevant criteria, products could be considered upgradable if they contained an externally-accessible port through which additional capacity could be supplied to the registered product (or if they could be upgraded through physical replacement of parts).
The PVC also ruled that 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, are not proprietary and do not require agreements between the buyer and seller.
The PVC declined to specify precise parameters for what constitutes “easy and safe” disassembly or removal of components, because they noted such terms could encompass different details depending on the specifics of the product class in question and must be demonstrated in action.
EPEAT goes on to say that all five of the laptops that they certified, which included ultrabooks from Toshiba, Lenova and Samsung as well, were able to be totally disassembled according to the manufacturer's disassembly instructions and that all the batteries were able to be removed within two minutes.
We'd really like to believe that the MacBook Pro with Retina Display was easy to disassemble and that the battery was easily removed, but a teardown by the disassembly experts at iFixit found it pretty much impossible to remove the battery without causing damage and Apple itself sent out a memo to its technicians saying that the battery was "not a replaceable part."
Add to that the fact that ordinary people who want to do simple upgrades and repairs at home, don't have access to special tools and detailed disassembly instructions. So why would EPEAT approve these ultrabooks? This leads us to believe that pressure to include these notebooks on the registry was more of a factor than the products' actual repairability.
To that point Greenpeace's Casey Harrell released a statement saying:
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.
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. The result will be electronics with a shorter lifespan and more e-waste.
Electronics need to be designed so that people can upgrade and repair them as easily as possible. If companies can’t make products that can be easily fixed, they shouldn’t be sold.
EPEAT's decision to include these products is pretty disappointing and, unfortunately, calls into question the standards by which they verify products in the first place and the value of EPEAT certification in general.