Apple's EPEAT withdrawal underscores disposable ethos


— 8:49 PM on July 12, 2012

There are probably more Apple computers in California than anywhere else in the US, if not the world. Before long, though, you may not find any new ones in the hands of workers employed by the city of San Francisco. According to the Wall Street Journal, the city's agencies have been told that Macs can no longer be purchased with city funds.

The ban comes in response to Apple's withdrawl from EPEAT, otherwise known as the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool. EPEAT sets certification criteria for "greener electronics." Among other things, it establishes standards for energy conservation, the use of environmentally sensitive materials, and end-of-life considerations like how easily a system can be disassembled for recycling.

That last item may have been Apple's point of contention. As iFixit discovered when tearing apart the new Retina-equipped MacBook Pro, a couple of key components appear inseparable. The gorgeous Retina LCD is fused to the glass panel covering it, and the battery is glued to the unibody aluminum chassis. Rather than have the Retina Pro deemed non-compliant with the EPEAT, it seems Apple has decided to bow out entirely.

The decision could affect more than just government workers in San Francisco. In accordance with a 2007 Executive Order, 95% of the computers purchased by the US government must be registered with the EPEAT.

To its credit, Apple appears to have taken great strides to reduce its environmental footprint. Old Macs and iDevices can be returned to the company for recycling, and you might even get an Apple gift card out of the deal. Also, according to an Apple representative quoted by The Loop, all of the company's products meet the US government's Energy Star 5.2 requirements for power efficiency.

EPEAT interim CEO Christine Ervin admitted to GreenBiz earlier this year that its current standards are "a little long in the tooth." Given Apple's seemingly green practices—at least versus others in the industry—there may be no reason for eco-mentalist hipsters to avoid the company's products on environmental grounds. 

Good luck removing the glued-in battery. Source: iFixit

That said, the fused display and glued-in battery are still reasons to pass on the new MacBook Pro. You can forget about buying cheap replacements for either component. Apple will replace the battery for $199, which is a lot more than the going rate on Amazon for older MacBook batteries. The rest of the Retina model does its best to thwart off-the-shelf replacement parts, too. Instead of using SO-DIMM slots, the RAM is soldered to the motherboard. Apple also uses a proprietary design for the solid-state drive, ignoring the mSATA standard adopted by others in the industry.

We shouldn't be surprised. Apple has never been friendly to folks who want to poke around inside their PCs. Mainstream consumers don't seem to care about easily replaceable components, either. They certainly don't expect to be able swap parts in other devices, like televisions and stereos. Those are consumer electronics, a category that has traditionally excluded PCs. Apple seems intent on blurring that distinction, and its iPhones and iPads already bridge the gap.

Obviously, simplified devices like smartphones and tablets have fewer parts that one might be inclined to replace—and no well-established standards for the ultra-tiny components required by their smaller sizes. Size is particularly important, because the smaller and ever-slimmer designs that Apple has pursued naturally favor greater integration over support for standardized components. SO-DIMM slots have a higher profile than RAM soldered to the circuit board, for example. The glued-in battery, in addition to having the cells inside the chassis, probably shaves millimeters.

The SSD is more questionable. It snubs the similarly slim mSATA standard in favor of a custon design using the same physical connector as the MacBook Air. But MacBook Air SSDs won't work with the Retina model. Apple can't even maintain compatibility across its proprietary interfaces. 

The Retina MacBook Pro's proprietary SSD. Source: iFixit

New EPEAT CEO Robert Frisbee told the Wall Street Journal that Apple indicated its "design direction was no longer consistent with the EPEAT requirements." That direction, it seems, is to make computers as closed as consumer electronics devices while catering to the population's misguided obsession with slimness.

PCs are starting to follow in those footsteps. Look at ultrabooks. They don't go as far as the Retina MacBook Pro's level of integration, but they certainly sacrifice easily-replaceable parts, expansion ports, and battery life in the name of meeting the arbitrary thickness requirements defined by Intel.

We've already passed the point of diminishing returns for ultra-skinny notebooks. Rather than further dieting, it would be nice to see a renewed focus on servicability. A notebook's memory, storage, and battery should all be replaceable. The process should be easy, ideally, but I'm willing to be reasonable. There are structural benefits to unibody chassis that lack large access panels and cut-outs for removeable batteries. However, users should be able to get at the guts with no more than a screwdriver. They definitely shouldn't have to deal with glue after getting past the first line of defense.

These days, one can revitalize an older notebook simply by adding RAM, a solid-state drive, and a fresh battery. Doing so might void the warranty, but by the time you upgrade, it will probably have expired already. Of course, if you could swap those parts easily, you might not buy a new notebook. No wonder Apple is making the practice as difficult as possible.

Steve Jobs once told MSNBC that "if you always want the latest and greatest, then you have to buy a new iPod at least once a year." That ethos, and the innovation that fuels the regular refreshes, has permeated Apple's lineup and driven its profits. At the same time, it's produced products that seem more and more disposable with each generation.

To be fair, the non-Retina MacBook Pro has a standard 2.5" hard drive and SO-DIMMs. Also, its battery is screwed rather than glued. But Apple's EPEAT withdrawal suggests those conveniences aren't part of its future plans. I can only hope the rest of the industry takes a break from copying Apple and doesn't follow suit.

Update 7/13: Apple has changed its tune on the EPEAT. In an open letter published today on its website, Senior VP of Hardware Engineering Bob Mansfield calls Apple's exit from the EPEAT a mistake. All eligible products will be back in the program starting today. Mansfield goes on to reiterate the company's desire to pursue environmentally responsible products, although it remains to be seen whether the trajectory toward less servicable PCs persists.

   
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