Why EPEAT approved the MacBook Pro despite recycling concerns

Why EPEAT approved the MacBook Pro despite recycling concerns

Everything Apple does makes headlines.

That statement, of course, is about as unsurprising as can be. The once-scrappy underdog from Cupertino, Calif. -- now the country's most valuable company, ever -- has long made tidal-sized waves with its innovative products, its visionary founder and the strength of its reality distortion field.

Love it or hate it, Apple inspires strong feelings.

The past three months have shown in new ways how those feelings apply to Apple's sustainability efforts. In brief: In July Apple abruptly abandoned EPEAT. Uproar ensued. Apple abruptly reversed course. Sustainability-minded folks crowed.

Then, Apple released new hardware, including a MacBook Pro that included glued-in batteries, not-upgradeable RAM and disk drives, and a "completely fused" display, according to a teardown from iFixit, which earned Apple the lowest possible score for repairability.

More uproar ensued. EPEAT investigated, determining that the MacBook Pro and four other devices from Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba met the EPEAT standard. Critics roared.

The story has made the rounds of several news cycles, generally traveling along the lines of "EPEAT caved to Apple on MacBook Pro" -- led by a Wired op-ed by iFixit's CEO in the wake of EPEAT's announcement and iFixit's damning review of the new MacBook Pro.

I will admit to being skeptical when the news came out about the MacBook Pro staying in the EPEAT registry: I'd read the iFixit teardown with concern, and wondered if any organization could withstand the full force of the reality distortion field. To get a look behind the scenes of the dustup, I spoke at length last week with EPEAT's director of communications, Sarah O'Brien.

Photo of apple with recycling symbol on top provided by Tsekhmister via Shutterstock

One takeaway O'Brien really clarified for me was that there isn't a way to change the standard quickly -- the EPEAT standard for computers and displays itself is six years old. Although underway, work on updating the standard will likely take a year or more to wrap up, according to O'Brien. EPEAT's role then is a policing function, to make sure that products on the registry belong there, and clarifying what the language of the IEEE 1680.1 standard (a.k.a. EPEAT) means.

"We don't have a lot of leeway in how we interpret," O'Brien said. "We do our very best to find empirical ways [to verify the language]. All of our verifications are independent so we can't influence them, so if you're asking a question of what's easy -- and that's the word that stakeholders have left us to work with -- then that's what we have to work with."

In the case of the ultrathin laptops, EPEAT began the process to verify the appropriateness of these five product lines to stay in the registry based on concerns about disassembly and upgradeability. This meant a top-level search of the registry for thin and light computers, then a winnowing-down of devices on the list, and then doing a detailed analysis is conducted by a nonaffiliated third party.

That analysis raised a few questions, which were then answered in what's called a "clarification" of the language in the standard -- and which is publicly available (if a bit obliquely worded) on the EPEAT website.

The hubbub? Largely whether, based on the iFixit teardown of the MacBook Pro, is the product easily disassembled? And just what does "easy" mean?

The bulk of the clarification deals quite granularly with the following criterion (which is one of 28 required criteria -- if any of these laptops didn't meet it, they'd be out of the registry -- so it's big stakes):

Criterion 4.3.1.3 -- Required -- Easy disassembly of external enclosure.

Product criterion: External enclosures shall be easily removable by one person alone with commonly available tools.

In the verification process, the product verification committee (PVC) unpacked each element of that language -- what is an "external enclosure"? What does "easily removable" mean? What constitutes "commonly available tools"? -- in an effort to develop some concrete guidance for manufacturers to follow when designing products to meet EPEAT standards.

The findings of the PVC basically state that:

  • An external enclosure protects internal parts; the language in the standard ties in to another subsection of the design for end-of-life criterion that requires hazardous materials to be easily identified and removed.
  • "Easily removable" means that companies must demonstrate that enclosures are easily removable, and importantly that: "the design does not unreasonabl[y] obstruct the disassembly process."
  • "Commonly available tools" are those that anyone can buy easily and with no restrictions "on the open market" -- so online or in a store. (Take that, MacBook Pro proprietary pentalobe screwdriver!)

In less wonky terms, the clarifications suggest that this whole tempest has been somewhat teapot-sized: Professional e-waste recyclers can still do their jobs, and computer owners can still upgrade devices if they're so motivated.

An interesting side note to emerge from this process: in clarifying the meaning of "external enclosure" in this standard, the PVC brought in definitions from the just-released EPEAT standards for imaging equipment and televisions. This marks the first time that language from the new standards can actually serve to upgrade the rapidly aging original EPEAT standard.

So what caused the hubbub? I'd chalk it up to a few key factors:

  1. The prominence of EPEAT in the institutional purchasing marketplace.
  2. A growing awareness of and concern about green IT in general and e-waste in particular.
  3. And most importantly, Apple's role in this story.

Trying to guess what drives decisions inside Apple is a losing proposition, but something O'Brien said during our conversation -- unrelated to Apple -- got me thinking. Normally in the course of a verification, if a product passes verification (as all five of these products did) there's no report or publication; business continues as usual. It's only when a product fails verification that anything gets publicized (usually; in this case EPEAT did publicize that the products passed).

So perhaps the original act in this drama -- Apple abandoning EPEAT -- was actually a pre-emptive strike (or a pre-emptive breakup)? Knowing the direction they were moving in with their laptops, perhaps company leaders assumed that they'd not meet the mandatory disassembly criteria and pulled the MacBook Pro out of the registry before it could be publicized that they failed.

In other words, perhaps they were hoping to avoid just the same kerfluffle that they've been embroiled in for the past three months.

If so, whoops.

Regardless of the drivers of this dustup, in the end I think the biggest lessons are that EPEAT carries a lot of weight in the IT world, and that the computer-using public also cares about green IT (even if in this case that care took the shape of a stick with which to beat Apple).