Apple Ditches EPEAT

I’m typing this post on a 17-inch MacBook Pro with the non-matte cover glassed LCD. The design is pleasing to my eyes, but functionally there are problems. First, glare. It’s distracting and I don’t like it. Second, the cover glass is not optically bonded to the LCD so there is an air gap. Well guess what, dust get trapped in there and when that happens it is irritating. The air gap also leads to light refraction and reflection that adds to the visual imperfections. Third, the cover glass adds weight and thickness.

Apple took care of most of these problems with the retina 15-inch MacBook Pro. First, glare. It’s still there but there’s less of it. Second, Apple eliminated the cover glass and integrated the bezel into the top layer of the LCD itself. Other things that got eliminated along with the cover glass: air gap, trapped dust, refraction, reflection. Third, no cover glass means lighter and thinner.

Fantastic, isn’t it?

Not if you’re EPEAT or iFixit. Kyle Wiens, iFixit:

According to my EPEAT contacts, Apple’s mobile design direction is in conflict with the intended direction of the standard. Specifically, the standard lays out particular requirements for product “disassemble-ability,” a very important consideration for recycling: “External enclosures, chassis, and electronic subassemblies shall be removable with commonly available tools or by hand.”

Repairability score: 1 out of 10. 1 means the retina MacBook Pro utterly fails. The retina display on the new MacBook Pro is difficult if not impossible to disassemble with common tools let alone by hand. If something were to go wrong with the display, say you cracked it, most likely the entire display subassembly will need to be replaced. That’s costly to the consumer. And possibily a big waste because it would be too difficult and therefore too expensive to salvage parts from the tightly integrated subassembly. If one component fails the entire display subassembly needs to be thrown out. That’s bad for the environment. Bad bad bad.

How can something fantastic be so bad?

The design direction of portable gear like the retina MacBook Pro is obvious: thinner, lighter, retina displays, more battery life, etc. And to get there companies need to figure out how to use less parts, make those parts smaller, and tightly integrate those parts. Standard parts like a 15.4-inch 1440×900 LCD module includes a metal chassis that brings together the LCD cell, backlight unit, driver ICs, and PCBs. It’s convenient: LG Display, Samsung, Sharp, etc. all make similar if not identical LCD modules and they are interchangeable. Pior to the retina MacBook Pro the 15.4-inch LCD was a standard module, but it was fat. With the MacBook Air Apple took the first step away from standard LCD modules. Apple tore apart the module, threw away most of it, and used only the components it needed. The unibody aluminum display chassis itself became the module. That was brilliant. Components need to be highly customized to make them thinner and lighter; integrate many thin and light custom components to build a thin and light notebook.

Highly customized, integrated parts are usually designed and manufactured by companies that give a damn. They’re willing to go through the pains of prototyping, manufacturing, and testing brand new custom parts. It’s worth it to them. This obsession with customization, precision, and integration result in computers like the new retina MacBook Pro. The retina MacBook Pro will likely be durable and last the test of time in part due to the tightly integrated high quality custom components. While disassemble-ability and repairability are good goals the much better thing to strive for is computers that last. The retina MacBook Pro will get passed on to children, to friends, and it’ll be a while before we see one in a landfill and that’s good for the environment.

Update 2012.07.10: Joel Schectman reporting for CIO Journal:

Officials with the San Francisco Department of Environment told CIO Journal on Monday they would send out letters over the next two weeks, informing all 50 of the city’s agencies that Apple laptops and desktops “will no longer qualify” for purchase with city funds.

Interesting that iPods, iPads, and iPhones are okay. An obviously political move with consequences that will lead to a deterioration of productivity. A good chunk of the folks who work there probably uses an iPad or an iPhone or both and will bring them into work. Interoperability between iOS and Windows though good enough is nowhere near as good as with OS X. Plus with all the disassembling and fixing going on of EPEAT-rated non-Apple desktop and notebooks I can imagine employees will get frustrated and increasingly depend on iDevices for work and communications. Also within a year or two I expect the EPEAT brand to mean very little to folks who buy notebooks.

Update 2012.07.10: Jim Dalrymple, The Loop:

“Apple takes a comprehensive approach to measuring our environmental impact and all of our products meet the strictest energy efficiency standards backed by the US government, Energy Star 5.2,” Apple representative Kristin Huguet, told The Loop. “We also 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.”

Energy Star > EPEAT.

Update 2012.07.13: A letter from Bob Mansfield:

We’ve recently heard from many loyal Apple customers who were disappointed to learn that we had removed our products from the EPEAT rating system. I recognize that this was a mistake. Starting today, all eligible Apple products are back on EPEAT.


Élyse Betters, 9to5 Mac:

Now, a few hours later, the EPEAT’s registry has 40 Apple products listed, including the Retina MacBook Pro.

It’s interesting to note all 40 are rated EPEAT Gold and 50% are notebooks. The retina MacBook Pro received 21/27 optional points; Zero points for “Materials selection” and “Energy conservation”. You would think with all the aluminum and long battery life MacBooks would do well. Maybe that’s not what EPEAT is looking at.

Section 4.2 Materials Selection (PDF) is basically about plastic and looks at the ratio of the weight of recycled/renewable/bio-based plastics compared to the weight of all plastics used in the product. EPEAT wants manufacturers to use recycled/renewable/bio-based plastics. That’s a good goal to have, but plastic requires a lot more energy to recycle than glass or metals, and recycled plastic is generally less durable. I don’t think it’s a good idea to increase demand for recycled plastics. Instead using less plastic would be a better idea.

Section 4.5 Energy Conservation (PDF) is about Energy Star. This is amusing since Apple states that it exceeds Energy Star specifications. EPEAT defines meeting Energy Star qualifications as:

[…] meeting all of ENERGY STAR’s “program requirements”, including all partner commitments for labeling, marketing, etc., and all eligibility criteria.

I get it: It’s about the sticker! The Energy Star sticker. Clearly Apple products don’t have one. Zero points for you, Apple.

EPEAT ratings. What do they really mean? Beats me. Maybe that’s why Apple pulled out. Then EPEAT made some pleading calls, Apple got Gold and vetoed Mansfield, he offered an apology, and now everyone is happy.