A Rotten “Green” Apple?

CEH was disturbed to learn recently that Apple was leaving EPEAT, the EPA-supported group that sets environmental standards for computers and other products. Even more disturbing was the company’s refusal to explain their decision publicly or to the stakeholders within EPEAT, including CEH, which has been the leading public interest group monitoring the standards development process for more than five years. Apple’s silence was creating speculation within the business and environmental community, but we felt strongly that the company needed to be held accountable.

So last week, CEH alerted our contacts at the Wall Street Journal, and the paper took interest. We gave the Journal background on EPEAT, explained its importance and breadth (as a standard used by dozens of companies who have more than three thousand computers and monitors registered for sale in more than 40 countries), and provided contacts for others within EPEAT and the electronics industry. Apple initially refused to comment for the Journal’s Tuesday blog report, but ultimately the story created even more questions and speculation. Apple would only say that they stood by their strong environmental record, leading some within industry to suggest that Apple was going off to create its own environmental standard, presumably one that would reward the company’s good deeds and ignore its failures.

The leading explanation for Apple’s decision was that the company feared its newer products, especially its Mac Book Pro, would not qualify for EPEAT status, because of design choices that make their new machines virtually impossible to recycle. Regardless of the reasoning, computer buyers began to line up to decry Apple’s move. The city of San Francisco held a press conference announcing it would implement its preferential purchasing policy, which requires computers be EPEAT-registered, by ordering all city agencies to no longer buy Apple computers. CEH continued to organize with other state and local governments, along with other major institutional computer purchasers, who began exploring similar options and other strategies to hold Apple accountable.

Within days, the pressure on Apple became too much. On Friday, the company announced it had made a “mistake” and would return to EPEAT. But celebrations were short-lived: Apple also announced it had placed four versions of its Mac Book Pro in EPEAT’s registry, declaring that the machines meet EPEAT’s highest “Gold” status, in a complete reversal of its previous admission that the company was moving away from practices that are compatible with EPEAT requirements.

Apple is well known for re-imagining electronics in unique ways, but this self-proclaimed reimagining of EPEAT criteria is unprecedented. EPEAT’s standard at any level includes the following two “Design for End of Life” criteria: machines must have external enclosures that can be easily removed by one person using common tools, and components containing hazardous materials (including batteries, circuit boards, and others) must be identifiable and easily and safely removable. But the Mac Book Pro’s battery is fastened to the case with industrial-strength glue – if you need it replaced, it’s impossible to do yourself. You need to return the entire machine to Apple (or make an appointment at an Apple store) and pay about $200 for a new battery-the most expensive battery replacement in the Apple fleet.

In short, Apple’s new Mac Book Pro’s don’t qualify for EPEAT registration at any level. EPEAT’s process allows companies to self-register products, followed by an internal EPEAT review. The EPEAT criteria include standards for recyclability and responsible end of life design decisions precisely because of the electronic waste (e-waste) problems created by flawed designs exemplified by these Apple machines. Already about 2.5 million tons of e-waste annually ends up in landfills or incinerators, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only 25 percent of this gets recycled. This electronic trash contains toxic chemicals including lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium, posing air pollution and water contamination threats. From materials extraction through production and disposal, computers and other electronics have created some of the planet’s most appallingly toxic sites (like this computer graveyard in Ghana). By making its products costly and inconvenient to maintain, Apple’s design is likely to result in even more toxic e-waste pollution.

We expect EPEAT to review Apple’s submission and take action to uphold EPEAT as a legitimate standard for environmental health protections. And we hope Apple re-thinks its designed-for-the-dump Mac Book Pros.