Does Apple's abandonment of EPEAT mean it's going less green?

New MacBook is difficult to disassemble for upgrades, repairs, and recycling -- and could force the green-minded to rethink Apple loyalties

Apple's decision to abandon EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) has generated a wave of speculation as to what the move means for the future of the hardware maker's green endeavors. At the heart of the controversy is the company's newest MacBook Pro with Retina Display, which Apple designed in such a way that it's difficult to disassemble for the sake of repairs, upgrades, and recycling.

A bit of background: EPEAT announced late last week that Apple was removing all 39 of its existing entries from the EPEAT registry. The statement simply said that Apple had been a founder and a longtime supporter of the program and that EPEAT hoped the company would return. Robert Frisbee, CEO of EPEAT, later elaborated to CIO Journal: "They said their design direction was no longer consistent with the EPEAT requirements. They were important supporters, and we are disappointed that they don't want their products measured by this standard anymore."

Apple has remained mum on the move, at least to the public, but is almost certainly receiving inquiries from federal and local agencies, schools, businesses, and consumers that use the EPEAT registry as a guideline for choosing which computers and monitors they'll purchase.

Apple's newly released MacBook Pro with Retina Display may play a critical role in Apple's decision to dump EPEAT. According to iFixit.com, it's extremely difficult to disassemble. When the site's team of dissemblers cracked open a unit, they "found a whole mess of pretty, yet difficult to access components. In fact, the MacBook Pro with Retina display earned our lowest repairability score ever, with 1 out of 10 points."

Presumably, that lack of repairability would have cost the new MacBook Pro a Gold rating on the EPEAT registry. The registry uses dozens of criteria to score products, including ease of disassembly. That's important from both an environmental conservation perspective and a business perspective: A product that can be easily dissembled can be repaired or upgraded with simple tools, meaning organizations can get extended use out of them. It's also faster and easier to recycle a product that's simple to disassemble, as parts can be quickly extracted intact for reuse.

Evidently, Apple made a conscious choice to eschew the "repairability" criterion in building the new MacBook Pro. Per iFixit's teardown:

  • You need a special screwdriver to access the machine's internals, even to simply remove the bottom cover.
  • The RAM is soldered to the logic board and thus can't be upgraded beyond the 16GB max.
  • The proprietary SSD isn't upgradeable.
  • The battery is glued rather than screwed into the case, which increases the chances that it'll break during disassembly.
  • The battery covers the trackpad cable, which increases the chance that a user will shear the cable in the battery removal process.
  • The display assembly is completely fused, with no glass protecting it. If anything ever fails inside the display, you will need to replace the entire (extremely expensive) assembly.
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