Sunday, October 14, 2012

Apple Passes Green Product Registry, Glued-In Batteries And All

Apple’s triumphant return to an eco-friendly electronics product registry called EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) has been officially confirmed: On Friday, EPEAT published the results of its latest investigations into the recyclability and repairability of Apple’s Macbook Pro and notebook computers made by other companies (Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba), giving them all a green light to remain on the registry.

After performing test disassembly on Apple’s Macbook Pro Retina, which contains a glued-in battery that is difficult for users to remove on their own, as well as disassembling four other computer models, EPEAT concluded: “All products investigated met the requirements of the criteria reviewed.”

The criteria EPEAT was looking to make sure the computers it tested complied with are as follows: “Upgradeability of components, Common availability of tools for disassembly. The ability to safely and easily remove key components as part of product disassembly for recycling.”

But EPEAT also “clarified” some of its own requirements for what constitutes an easy to disassemble laptop so that Apple and the other computer companies could stay on the registry under the ratings they had given their own products.

EPEAT works by allowing companies to first rate the eco-friendliness of their own electronics on a three-tier scale, from bronze to gold. EPEAT then goes back and investigates in certain cases where it has reason to believe that the companies’ self-administered ratings aren’t accurate. Apple has registered all of its laptops at the highest rating, gold.

As EPEAT noted, its “investigation was prompted by concerns raised earlier this year in professional publications that speculated whether certain ultra-thin notebooks might not meet several key environmental criteria.”

Specifically, EPEAT updated a criteria stating that computer bodies should be easy to take apart, or, in EPEAT’s words: “External enclosures shall be easily removable by one person alone with commonly available tools.”

EPEAT said that after it received numerous questions from its participating companies (some 30 manufacturers in the United States) the phrase “commonly available tools,” was too ambiguous, and so in late July published the following clarification:

A tool is deemed to be “commonly available” as long as it can be purchased by any individual or business without restrictions and is readily available for purchase on the open market. The tools may be purchasable at a local retail store, or by any individual or business via a mail or web-based retailer. Tools that are proprietary or require licensing or other agreements between the buyer and seller are not considered commonly available.

That too, is a pretty broad description of tools that could include even Apple’s uncommon pentalobe screws on some of its devices.

Still, EPEAT says that the five products, including Apple’s new Macbook Pro Retina display model, all were easily disassembled in laboratory tests performed by personnel who were specifically “not trained recycling professionals and were not experts in the quick disassembly of products.”

The results were that even the Macbook Pro Retina with its glued-in battery were rapidly taken apart:
The lab investigators reported that the time required for total disassembly of each of the 5 subject products was less than 20 minutes and the time required for removal of batteries was under 2.5 minutes for each product…removal of batteries and other key components could be conducted “easily and safely” in professional recycling environments, as required.

As such, EPEAT’s product verification committee recommended that all five computers stay on the green listing.

The news is a victory for Apple, which left the green products registry in early July, a divergence that EPEAT CEO Robert Frisbee told The Wall Street Journal at the time was due to the fact that the Apple Macbook Pro Retina display had a glued-in battery, and “if the battery is glued to the case it means you can’t recycle the case and you can’t recycle the battery.”

But Apple faced enormous backlash from some of its most loyal customers in enterprise in government as a result of leaving EPEAT, and so a week later returned to the registry and re-listed its products under the highest standard.

Other stakeholders of EPEAT, namely the Electronics TakeBack Coalition (ETBC) , an advocacy group that calls for more recyclable products, questioned Apple’s decision to re-list its products as “gold,” despite not changing anything about their construction or disassembly mechanisms.

The ETBC went so far as to say Apple should “flunk EPEAT” for its glued-in batteries.

Not surprisingly, ETBC was not pleased with Friday’s news about Apple passing the tests.

“EPEAT’s decision shows that these computer standards are incredibly weak, and they desperately need to be revised” said Barbara Kyle, ETBC national coordinator, in an email to TPM, adding:
“For EPEAT’s review, they got Apple to send their lab the disassembly instructions. I am guessing they say to apply heat - I have heard that is what’s required. But most recyclers won’t have the manual handy, since Apple refuses to post its disassembly instructions publicly. It’s counterintuitive to heat up a battery, and I am not sure it’s technically “safe” either. So for most people, it will still not be easy to remove this glued in battery. ”

Still, EPEAT stands by its decision, allowing Apple to continue advertising its products as EPEAT certified “gold.”

Corrections and clarifications: This article originally said that EPEAT “changed” some of its own requirements for notebook computers that allowed Apple’s Macbook Pro Retina to be able to be found in compliance. EPEAT contacted TPM after this story’s publication to “strongly object” to our characterization that the standards had been changed.

“Clarification is a formal process familiar to those who work with standards - this type of process is used to interpret language in standards that is less than fully clear,” EPEAT’s Sarah O’Brien, director of outreach and communications, wrote to TPM via email. “Dozens of Clarifications have been filed since the start of the EPEAT system to enable us to adequately Verify specific issues or criteria - you may see them all at”

Regarding the matter of the ease of disassembly and recyclability of so-called “glued-in” batteries, O’Brien wrote defending EPEAT’s assessment that they were easy to remove.

“No language in the standard forbids glued in batteries,” O’Brien wrote. “The only requirement is that they must be capable of being easily removed. The independent test lab who disassembled the products for this verification found that the batteries in all products could be removed in under 2.5 minutes — in most cases under a minute — with commonly available tools. The lab staff judged that as meeting the definition of easy and they recommended accordingly that the products be found to meet that requirement.”


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