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iFixit casts doubt on EPEAT Gold over Retina MacBook

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.




By Electronista Staff
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  1. The Vicar

    Junior Member

    Joined: 07-01-09

    He's definitely wrong on the "commonly available tools" part. If I can buy a tool off of Amazon, then it's commonly available. He shouldn't have made that claim, because the rest of his argument sounds dead-on. I doubt anything short of Apple somehow blowing its huge reserves and going out of business would really drive me away from their ecosystem in the foreseeable future, but one thing I don't delude myself about is the level of repairability of the machines. They aren't. For a little while, Apple was headed in that direction, with laptops where you could pull out the hard drive and so forth. But they have definitely stepped back from that, and they are increasingly using highly customized parts in the sections which aren't standardized by the industry (like the hard drive and RAM). If Apple stops supporting repairs on any existing model, then every machine of that model is basically going to the landfill as soon as it breaks down.

    (And, further, although I think Thunderbolt is great, and it takes away pretty much any argument for building a tower Mac, it isn't really "upgrading" the hardware. Offhand, I can't think of a Mac I would actually describe as "upgradable", other than the XServes which had to allow CPU upgrades to be competitive, since the initial Intel Mac Minis. If you can't either replace the CPU or install a card which replaces it -- as you used to be able to do with the PDS in some old Macs -- then it isn't really "upgradeable". And it shows; the longest-lived Mac, defined as "how long can this Mac continue to run the current version of the OS", was the SE/30. It lasted something like 11 years. These days, the time limit is hovering around 3, and may even have fallen below it by now. I'd really like to see Apple start offering Macs which could have the CPU replaced -- even if that required sending the machine to Apple for the upgrade, which wouldn't fit the EPEAT standard.)

  1. testudo

    Forum Regular

    Joined: 08-06-01

    Originally Posted by NewsPosterView Post

    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.



    That's a specious argument. I don't recall a battery being defective because it was screwed in vs. being glued in. In fact, who's doing this arguing (besides Apple, I mean)? Actual 'professionals' who know what they're talking about, or people like me or others on MacNN who "know" what they're talking about.

    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.

    They continue to be handled by Apple most often BECAUSE of this (and other reasons, like Apple has basically trashed their entire service partnerships, not wanting anyone else touching stuff). Just because Apple handles most of the repairs doesn't mean that part of the standard doesn't apply.

    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.

    Um, 'commenters' sounds like another word for 'defenders'. And what about it? Apple has a financial interest in their products selling, so they're going to say things that are positive to them.

    Regardless of all that, does the fact he has an interest mean his criticism about Apple and the standard invalid?

    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.

    Devices that last longer are MORE likely to need repair. But I guess it's your definition of 'lasts longer'. I look at that at 'usable life', not 'time between breakages'. And, in fact, upgradability makes them last longer.

    But on top of that, what metrics do you have that says "These changes make the devices last longer?".

  1. mytdave

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 08-16-00

    Splitting hairs. Okay, so the new Retina laptop(s) is the least user-serviceable laptop ever built, but I thought EPEAT was all about being "green". If so, then the Retina laptop(s) is also the most recyclable laptop ever built - that doesn't mean the user will remove components and take them to a recycle center (which few consumers ever do, they just throw things in the trash), it means that at the unit's EOL you take it to Apple (easy to do) and they take the responsibility of recycling the stuff.

    Is glueing the battery to the chassis the stupidest thing I've ever heard of? Yes. Does it matter? Not really. The new battery tech allows these things to last well past 5 years, which is pretty much past the useful life span of the laptop itself, so it's not like anyone is going to be replacing the battery anyway. Still, using glue to hold the battery in place? Stupid.

    Apple: The #1 thing that keeps me from buying any 'Air' or 'Retina' MacBook however, is the soldered on RAM, and the proprietary SSD (even though some third parties have made replacements). Sorry Apple, but that's just beyond insane. Laptops are not iDevices. I work in IT, and if you have a traditional computer (desktop, laptop, etc.) you need components that can be swapped out easily. Apple is shooting itself in the foot with this ridiculous design. You can get the same low-profile clearance with side-by-side (instead of stacked) DIMM slots inside the laptop as you can with soldering direct to the board. Your quest for thinness, control, conformity, etc. is starting to backfire on you.

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