Apple is great at promoting its products’ energy-efficiency and environmental sustainability, but the best thing Apple may have done for the green tech movement was last week’s flip-flop on pulling its computer products from the EPEAT green registry, then placing them back on.
The original move to pull its products from the EPEAT registry, which many government agencies and corporations must use almost exclusively for procurement, caused a firestorm of criticism, as Apple appeared to be putting a design philosophy embedded in the new MacBook Pro with Retina display ahead of producing environmental-friendly products. As a result, the city of San Francisco even banned the purchase of Apple products.
One of the many green and sustainable requirements to register a product on EPEAT is easy disassembly so metals and hazardous materials in electronics products can be recycled responsibly, but the MacBook Pro with Retina display contains a battery pack that’s glued to the case, apparently with an industrial-strength bond, making it difficult if not impossible for a recycler to disassemble. Making a product difficult to disassemble violates the key environmental sustainability tenets of re-use and recycle. Environmental advocates, eco-leaning Apple users and stockholders were not pleased.
If this issue festers, it’s great for the press, but it can also be great for the green tech movement. Here’s why: It will foster a much deeper discussion of product design for sustainability and for re-use and upgradeability. It may also foster more discussion of ownership rights of electronics, especially in regards to do-it-yourself fixes. And it could make not-so-widely known EPEAT a much greater force in the world of consumer electronics.
Designing for Sustainability
When most of us use electronics, whether it’s a computer, TV or network streaming device, we’re usually not thinking about whether the thing is easy for recyclers to disassemble. And considering the often abysmal rates of electronics recycling, I’m prone to think many, many people have never even considered it. But if we want products to be recycled responsibly so the heavy metals and hazardous substances in them don’t leach into groundwater and poison us, we need to think in terms of recycling as much of them as possible.
A much larger portion of our electronics could and should be made of recycled materials, especially if we’re replacing them every few years. A spirited debate about whether products should be designed foremost for seamlessness and economy of space or for environmental sustainability could increase awareness of this issue exponentially. So don’t be afraid to stick to your design philosophy Apple. Use that hard-to break glue! With the profusion of tablets and smartphones due to hit the landfills and recycling shops, we need to have this debate, and we need to have it now.
Designing for Upgradability
One of the criticisms leveled at Apple over this brouhaha is that the company is increasingly designing products that are difficult for their owners—that’s you, consumers—to service, even for small repairs. Ever try to change a battery in an iPhone? If you don’t know how, you can go to iFixit and see the instructions and purchase the proper tools. But you shouldn’t have to be a hardcore DIYer to change a battery or upgrade memory. You shouldn’t have take a product to an Apple Store for simple repairs and upgrades. That’s great for Apple and other manufacturers. Planned obsolescence helps sell more products. But it’s not so great for consumers and the environment. Apple—the undisputed leader of electronics design—could take a huge and bold step by producing products with ever longer life cycles so “upgrading” doesn’t mean “buying new.
Making products hard to get into and take apart also raises questions about ownership. If you own the product, shouldn’t you be allowed to do whatever you want to it, asks Treehugger.
Making EPEAT More Powerful
Many people don’t know of the EPEAT registry because it’s been limited to computer products and is used primarily by government agencies and corporations with sustainable purchasing policies. (Though EPEAT is also an excellent resource for consumers.) However, EPEAT is preparing to also include televisions and imaging devices like printers, thereby expanding its reach and influence. Last week’s Apple kerfuffle has probably earned EPEAT more press that it’s ever enjoyed. And that’s a good thing, because EPEAT isn’t just another Energy Star designation. Certified EPEAT products must conform to a comprehensive set of environmental standards, from energy efficiency to reduction of hazardous substances to easy disassembly and much more. And a revised IEEE 1680.1 standard for computers is on deck to be made stronger (we hope). Bring on the TVs, printers and even more, EPEAT. The world needs more of you.
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