This Whole EPEAT Kerfuffle

Last week, it emerged that Apple wasn’t going to participate in the EPEAT program any more:

According to Robert Frisbee, CEO of EPEAT, Apple asked the organization last month to pull its 39 certified desktop computers, monitors and laptops, which included past versions of the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air.

“My, that’s outrageous,” I hear you say. “Why would Apple pull out of a respected authority on environmentally-friendly electronics products?” Ah, dear reader, let us explore this in more detail.

As linked above, 9to5 Mac speculated that this was due to the new MacBook Pro:

Its glass display is fused with the top of the case, while the batteries are glued to the bottom, making it extremely difficult to repair or recycle.

Indeed, EPEAT’s regulations require computers to be easily upgradable with “common tools”:

All desktop and notebook personal computers shall be upgradeable with common tools, including memory drives, chips and cards that can be changed or extended.

Requirements like this led Hacker News user jws to comment:

There are thousands of design tradeoffs to be made in a laptop. Is EPEAT willing to update and republish their rules every time a manufacturer finds a better solution that doesn’t comply with the rules?

Probably not. It doesn’t matter that the RAM in a modern MacBook Pro will likely last for a decade—since it’s soldered in, it doesn’t comply, and it can’t be listed.

“But wait,” I hear you protest, “the MacBook Air’s RAM has been soldered in for, like, four years and it’s been listed for all that time.”

You’re right. If they were an independent body checking these things, that would probably have been discovered. But EPEAT is a paid membership (PDF link), for which it costs Apple $87,310 per year to put the certification on their products.

It’s a common assumption that EPEAT is some sort of regulatory body checking manufacturers against stringent guidelines. Entire cities, such as San Francisco, require all new computers purchased by the city to bear EPEAT certification. As a result, Apple’s desktops and notebooks can no longer be purchased by San Francisco city officials:

A 2007 policy requires San Francisco city agencies to purchase 100% EPEAT-certified desktops, laptops, and monitors.

“We are disappointed that Apple chose to withdraw from EPEAT, and we hope that the city saying it will not buy Apple products will make Apple reconsider its participation,” Melanie Nutter, director of San Francisco’s Department of Environment said in an interview with the [Wall Street] Journal.

I doubt that. As the mysterious Kontra pointed out on Twitter:

SF spent $45,579 on iMacs, MacBooks & iPads in 2010.

No stats are available for 2011 yet, but that’s a tiny drop in the bucket for Apple.

Which brings us to yesterday. Jim Dalrymple of The Loop got a statement from Apple explaining their reasoning:

“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.”

This whole kerfuffle would have been minimized if Apple had said this in the first place, but they didn’t. Now we know that EPEAT is a sponsored badge, not an independent adjudicator, Apple thinks their regulations are outdated, and the city of San Francisco thinks their school-sized purchase of Apple hardware will be influential enough for the company to change their mind.

Update: And just like that, Apple is back on EPEAT.