Apple abandons EPEAT: Is Cupertino turning its back on the environment?

July 12, 2012

And in large part, that's a good thing. The iPad I'm using to write this story runs a thousand times faster than my first computer did in the early 1980s.

I can carry it with one hand, and the whole thing costs about 20 percent of what that giant beige box sold for.

All that progress comes at a cost, though. I got rid of my Apple IIe more than two decades ago, but somewhere, it still exists.

The devices we get rid of when we replace them every few years disappear from our homes, but they don't actually disappear. With very few exceptions, every piece of electronics you've ever owned still exists somewhere.

That's why when Apple removed all its products from the EPEAT environmental ratings program, it came as a surprise to many. Despite frequently crossing environmental watchdogs like Greenpeace, Apple's actually been quite proactive about the impact of its products on the environment.

You can drop off discarded Apple products at any of its stores for recycling, and Apple reports extensively on their environmental footprint, and efforts to minimize it .

Apple's decision to remove its products from the EPEAT listing is directly linked to the drive for smaller, lighter, more powerful machines.

As iFixit noted, the new Retina Display MacBook Pro is the "least reparable MacBook ever," giving it a 1 out of 10 rating for repairability.  mostly because of the construction. Shrinking the size of the device means using custom parts, soldered-on storage, and lots of glue.

These techniques result in slicker hardware, for sure, but they also make Apple products difficult to fix, or to break down and recycle at the end of their lifespan. Since EPEAT's certification relies heavily on products being easy to disassemble and for using separate components, Apple's newer, more compact designs make these criteria harder, if not impossible to meet.

Removing their products from the voluntary EPEAT registry gives Apple the freedom to continue to innovate. Freed from EPEAT's constraints on product design, they can focus on what consumers expect—delivering better devices in sleeker packages.

Unfortunately for Apple, many government agencies have strict purchasing requirements that stipulate a percentage of products purchased need to be EPEAT certified.

For federal agencies, that number is 95 percent. And certain municipalities have their own rules. Owing to Apple's removal from the EPEAT certification program, the City of San Francisco will no longer be able to purchase Apple gear with city funds. There are plenty of companies with similar purchasing policies of their own, and Apple's recent decision affects all of them, too.

Currently, EPEAT doesn't have guidelines for tablet devices. So the iPad was not one of the 39 products that Apple removed from the rankings. But as tablets continue to become integral to business, EPEAT's guidelines will no doubt change to include them. 

Of course, Apple leaving behind the voluntary EPEAT standards it helped create doesn't all of a sudden mean that Apple is building its devices out of toxic waste and endangered animals. In a statement to The Loop , Apple noted that they "lead the industry by reporting each product’s greenhouse gas emissions on our website, and Apple products are superior in other important environmental areas not measured by EPEAT, such as removal of toxic materials."

It's hard to say what the net effect of Apple's decision will be. They're walking away from an established, recognizable standard, and it will result in lost sales. But they've no doubt already figured out what's in their best interest as a company.

While it's easy to cast Apple as the bad guy here, reality is far more complicated. As users, we're culpable too. Faster, better, lighter, smaller. It's what we want, but in order to get it, we have to make compromises. The question is, how much are we willing to compromise to reduce the environmental impact of the technology we rely on?


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