Did The EPEAT Environmental Registry Cave On Apple's Retina MacBook Pro?

Just three months after Apple's public relations snafu that saw the company mysteriously leave the computer industry's EPEAT environmental standards program and then come back again under a cloud of shame, it turns out the Mac/iPhone maker had little to worry about. All of the products Apple submitted to the registry, including the Retina MacBook Pro at the heart of the original controversy, have now qualified for EPEAT status anyway.

That development, though, has gotten a lot of folks angry, including environmental organization Greenpeace and noted repair site iFixit.org, who have accused EPEAT of watering down its standards in order to accommodate what they describe as Apple's decidedly non-environmental hardware.

The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) registry rates devices on their "greenness." based on factors such as longevity, upgradability and recyclability. EPEAT is sponsored by grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and revenue from industry participants in its registry, specifically annual fees based on a company's sales and revenue in an evaluated product's category, according to Sarah O'Brien, Director of Outreach and Communications for EPEAT.

Of EPEAT's 47 participants, O'Brien emphasized, "Apple pays only a small part of our total revenue."

O'Brien's statement was aimed at countering comments from Greenpeace and iFixIt that implied that because Apple was essentially paying for its own certification, the company was able to call the shots as far as receiving Gold certification for the Retina MacBook Pro.

The Retina Lightning Rod

The Retina MacBook Pro has become the poster child for Apple's avoidance of green standards. In June, criticism for Apple's recyclability came to a head when iFixit noted that the laptop used a lot of glue to bind the display, case and boards within the device together. In iFixit's opinion at the time, this makes the device very hard to service and recycle.

It's an assertion iFixit is very strongly maintaining.

"Apple's Retina MacBook Pro - the least repairable, least recyclable computer I have encountered in more than a decade of disassembling electronics - was just verified 'Gold', along with four other ultrabooks," blogged iFixit's Kyle Wiens. "This decision demonstrates that the EPEAT standard has been watered down to an alarming degree."

Greenpeace went even farther in its assertions.

"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," Greenpeace IT analyst Casey Harrell said in a statement to PC World.

"Is it a coincidence?" Harrell continued. "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."

EPEAT Fires Back

O'Brien was equally assertive in her defense of EPEAT's evaluation of the Retina MacBook and other products.

"We are a standards-based program," O'Brien told me, referring to the IEEE 1680.1 standards. "Our verification and registry of products is based on those standards."

O'Brien's boss, CEO Robert Frisbee, also defends the groups actions.

"Once standards are defined and agreed-upon, EPEAT’s focus becomes verifying products that are on the registry. EPEAT staff are not directly involved in the investigations, and do not have any authority to alter the requirements to let participants off the hook. Through investigations by independent contractors, products are either found conformant to the standard or not,' Frisbee wrote in EPEAT's blog this week in reaction to the media kerfuffle.

Both EPEAT staff members emphasized that since EPEAT follows the letter of the standards when it has products tested, it is doing its job as expected. O'Brien outlined how many stakeholders, from manufacturers to environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) like Greenpeace, are involved in the standards-building process.

"The ideal situation is that everyone brings their perspectives and goals to the standards discussions," O'Brien said. But, she added, those goals have to be balanced with the need to actually have products be able to achieve the standards at some point.

O'Brien defended the notion that EPEAT's standards are easy to attain. "When the Registry first launched, there were no Gold products for a year."

Currently there are 1,573 active Gold-rated products in EPEAT's Gold level of certification. By contrast, 671 have achieved Silver status and 38 have Bronze status.

EPEAT's Present and Future

To meet minimal EPEAT standards, products have to meet 28 baseline regulatory requirements set by the EPA. To get EPEAT's additional levels of certification (Bronze, Silver, and Gold), the product has to rate well in optional criteria such as the reduction/elimination of environmentally sensitive materials and design for end-of-life.

While EPEAT is not itself a government organization, its product ratings can be important to governments. U.S. federal agencies, for example, are required to give EPEAT-registered products preference in procurement decisions. This, more than anything else, is why most people believed Apple returned its products to EPEAT's registry in July.

What is not clear is why Apple would leave EPEAT to begin with. O'Brien said that her organization still does not know what prompted Apple's initial departure.

For now, EPEAT and other organizations, including the EPA, are beginning talks to revise the IEEE standards. O'Brien says this is critical in order to keep the standards relevant to the fast changes in hardware design.

"We have to get the goal and vision out head of rapid changes," O'Brien said.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock / ReadWriteWeb.