updated 06:59 pm EDT, Tue October 16, 2012
iFixit accuses EPEAT of 'greenwashing'
In a caustically-worded piece, the CEO of iFixit has decried both the EPEAT environmental certification program and Apple's Retina MacBook Pro in particular, claiming that the former's Gold certification of the latter constitutes "greenwashing," or a form of spin in which deceptive marketing is used to portray a product as environmentally friendly. He claims that EPEAT bent the definitions of its own rules in order to grant Gold status to Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, as well as several other "ultrabook" class devices from other makers. The result, he contends, is that the EPEAT is ultimately weaker, compromised to a degree that could bring the technology industry to an inflection point, with significant implications for the environment.
In a piece originally published on Wired iFixit co-founder and CEO Kyle Wiens recounts the cnotroversy surrounding Apple's removal and eventual resubmission of the new Retina MacBook Pro to EPEAT evaluation. The nature of the MacBook's construction -- with its glued in components and proprietary screws -- has led some critics to decry it as an essentially unrecyclable device.
Upon resubmission, though, the notebook was granted EPEAT Gold certification, clearing the way for various government agencies and environmentally-minded consumers to purchase Apple's latest computer.
Wiens' argument against the decision centers on a few aspects of the Gold certification's standard -- In particular, the requirements that products be "upgradeable with commonly available tools," that external enclosures be "easily removable," and that circuit boards and batteries be "safely and easily identifiable and removable."
Weins' iFixit specializes in disassembling and repairing electronics from many manufacturers. Whenever a popular device is released, iFixit performs a "teardown" on it and assigns it a grade with regard to the ease with which it can be repaired without sending it back to the manufacturer.
Screwdrivers to remove Apple's proprietary Pentalobe screws are available for purchase on sites like Amazon, but Weins argues that the fact that they are not commonly owned means they cannot be called "commonly available." He holds that the glued-in components of the Retina MacBook preclude their classification as "easily removable" or "safely and easily identifiable and removable," as well.
EPEAT, in deciding on the notebook, consulted its own Product Verification Committee, which is composed of independent experts on electronics and the environment, for definitions on the phrases "commonly available" and "safely and easily." That committee found that products could be considered upgradeable if they contained an externally-accessible port, and that tools required for disassembly or upgrade could be considered "commonly available" if they could be purchased by any individual on the open market. The committee declined to specify parameters defining "easy and safe" disassembly or removal of components.
Wiens, who participated as a member of the balloting committee for the most recent EPEAT standard, makes no claim as to why EPEAT would sidestep its own standard definitions in favor of the Retina MacBook, opting instead to point out where the decision is apparently at odds with the standard as it is worded. He cautions that technological consumers are at an "inflection point," where the "throwaway design" he says the new MacBook represents could come to define the standard in the computer industry, with potentially disastrous implications for the environment.
Apple touts the MacBook's EPEAT Gold rating on the notebook's technical specifications page, noting that its aluminum enclosure is "highly recyclable," that its LED backlit display is mercury-free and uses arsenic-free glass, and pointing out the reduced packaging volume, among other factors. The company states that it takes a "holistic view of materials management and waste minimization."
Others have argued that Apple's use of a sealed battery and display and overall improvements in those areas of technology significantly reduce the chance that the affected parts would need replacing during the normal course of useful life of the product, evening out (overall) the higher repair cost if an accident does happen. Defects continue to be handled by Apple most often with replacement or in-house repair, though the cost of repair on the latest Air and MacBook Pro units (both of which are easily openable but not highly repairable) could be higher for more accident-prone users who don't invest in the extended warranty options available.
Commenters on the Wired story have also pointed out that iFixit has a vested financial interest in Apple making devices that are more easily modifiable, openable and repairable. It sells tools and upgrade services, and posts teardown and self-fixing manuals, through which it promotes its own toolkits and services. Devices that on average last longer, are less likely to need repair and are more difficult for amateur or third-party repair services to fix would be harmful to iFixit's existence.