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Apple chooses design over recyclability. Will anyone notice?

Last month Apple (s aapl) asked that the standards group EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool), which is responsible for rating the recyclability of electronics products drop it from its rankings. The group, which is funded by the EPA, complied. It means that 39 Macs, MacBooks and monitors that were previously EPEAT certified as causing minimal environmental damage and promoting maximum recyclability, no longer have the group’s stamp of approval. In making this move, Apple is signaling that it won’t let future design decisions be governed by those seeking to uphold environmental standards.

The head of EPEAT, CEO Robert Frisbee, told the Wall Street Journal about Apple’s decision that’s sure to rile the environmentally conscious:

“They said their design direction was no longer consistent with the EPEAT requirements,” Frisbee said. The company did not elaborate, Frisbee said. “They were important supporters and we are disappointed that they don’t want their products measured by this standard anymore.”

The “green” angle is one Apple has taken flack for over the years. Since 2007, Apple has spent time repairing its reputation with Greenpeace and other environmental groups, and has become vocal about the “green” nature of its products. And it’s still a target, most recently for its use of coal power. Now it appears to be going backward, withdrawing requests for EPEAT certification.

But will mainstream consumers, Apple’s target audience, care? I think plenty will not. To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying people shouldn’t care, I just think a lot won’t.

Apple can still claim it is thinking about the environmental impact of its products in other ways. The company is still happy to brag about how its MacBook battery lasts three times as long as competitors’ notebook batteries, as well as all the PVC and BFR it keeps out of its products and how green it has made its data centers. But do its solar- and fuel-cell powered data centers weigh heavily on whether a customer chooses to use iTunes or iCloud? Unlikely. Which is why I doubt EPEAT labels have a sizable impact on the decision for the average buyer when shopping for a new notebook.

A lot of us are already aware how difficult it is to take apart Apple products. Sites like iFixit have been vocal about how difficult it is to disassemble and self-repair the latest MacBooks, as well as the iPad and iPhone. Still, plenty continue to buy these products. The ability to take apart a MacBook and recycle the battery, for instance, and the ability to replace the battery without the need for special tools clearly go somewhat hand in hand. Apple has trained customers to expect a product that lasts a decently long amount of time, and if it’s damaged beyond repair and can’t be salvaged by the company’s own specialists, to buy a new one.

Still, Apple won’t escape completely unscathed. People with high standards for their consumer products will care about EPEAT rankings, and they’ll seek out more easily recyclable computers. Big institutions will care too. The federal government, schools, Ford and Kaiser Permanente, for example, as the WSJ points out, each have requirements to buy EPEAT-certified electronics. That’s a lot of spending power on computers for workers, and Apple computers will no longer meet those IT departments’ buying standards.

And that could hurt. But it’s also consistent with most Apple decisions: it spends a lot of money, stays out of some markets and probably loses out on some easy profits because design always comes first.

19 Responses to “Apple chooses design over recyclability. Will anyone notice?”

  1. I recycle all my computers. My fastest desktop when replaced gets given to my wife, her PC is then given to the kids, and the kids old PC is scavenged for parts to feed the franken-server I run VMWare server on. Last E-waste day, I only threw out 5 4GB HDDs and an old 14″ CRT monitor.

  2. eldernorm

    Apple still makes its products out of aluminum and glass and has the longest lasting batteries (if you use 3 then you make 3x the waste).

    Just because they have opted out of the certification, does NOT mean that they are making UN-GREEN products.
    Just a thought.

  3. Charles Gaba

    At the risk of sounding “fanboyish”, I should point out that using thinner, lighter materials also means that you’re using FEWER materials in the first place.

    Seriously, let’s say that you have a 5 lb. laptop that’s 60% recyclable and a 3 lb. laptop that’s only 33% recyclable.

    Guess what? Either way you’re still left with 2 lbs. of non-recyclable materials, and the heavier laptop still left a larger carbon footprint by using more space and fuel to ship, as well as using more raw materials in the first place.

    I’m not saying that’s a perfect description of the situation, but think about how Apple was the first company to abandon huge, bulky CRT screens with the 2nd generation iMac (and then store-wide). That *alone* did more to reduce their carbon footprint than all the recycling in the world would have.

  4. Michael W. Perry

    Schools will care, since repairability and green politics matter to them. I’ll also care, since repair/upgrade is a big factor in what I buy. And they’ll lose government and corporate purchases where EPEAT certification is required. Windows sales reps are probably doing cartwheels over this move, particularly with Windows 8 about to come out.

    I suspect Apple executives are confusing their success at abandoning FLASH with what’s likely to result from abandoning EPEAT. That would explain why they dumped even already-passed certification. FLASH was a bundle of hurt, to use a Steve Jobs’ term. EPEAT has benefits for users and hurts no one.

    Except perhaps the ‘thinner is always better’ fanboys at Apple.

  5. Amanda Schwoegler

    There must be a way to create beautifully designed and desired products that are fixable and recyclable. I’ve got to believe that at some point consumers will start to care about these things.. No?

    • eldernorm

      Amanda, Apple computers are beautiful and repairable (just not by you and me) and recyclable…. so what is the problem??

      Have you repaired your current computer a lot??

  6. A couple of thoughts.

    First, if you want your Apple product recycled, just go give it to an Apple store (or ship it to Apple, I’m pretty sure they also accept stuff that way) and they’ll recycle it free of charge.

    Second…why would Apple care what Greenpeace and other ecoterrorists think? I mean…they’ve spent years trying to appease them, and they still yell at Apple…I say to hell with the ecoterrorists and do what has to be done to get us users the best possible product, period.

    I still haven’t heard anybody complaining about not being able to recycle their cars with home tools.

    • It doesn’t take much for the Apple fanboys to come out. Yes it’s easy to smugly label anyone with more progressive thoughts than you as a ‘terrorist’, Karl Rove taught you well. But in your insulated little world, not everyone lives within a reasonable distance to an Apple store and not everyone is happy about Apple’s continuing move towards a wasteful, throw-away ethos. Oh, and your car analogy is something of a stretch, correlating Apple’s mobile devices with a Honda is bizarre.

      • eldernorm

        Ed, strong words and poorly placed. Why in the world would you think that “Apple’s continuing move towards a wasteful, throw-away ethos” makes any sense at all. The Apple computers today are exactly the same as those from yesterday. The same material that is easy to recycle. OK, Apple is making the computers harder to repair… but if you look around you will see that Apple computers FAIL way less than the competition and so you DON’T NEED to repair them.. Just a thought.

  7. Extended producer responsibility (AKA product stewardship) should place a higher onus on producers who make more difficult-to-recycle products. If you produce something that is harder to recycle, you should pay a higher stewardship fee to ensure the proper end-of-life management of that product.

    • eldernorm

      I think you are mixing up hard to repair and hard to recycle. Apple computers are very easy to recycle. Just break it open, rip out the battery (recycle), recycle the glass, recycle the aluminum, and trash the mini pc board.

      Just because you cannot easily swap out your own parts in a large roomy case, does not make it any less recyclable.

      Just a thought.

      • That’s very true. The second of the 3Rs is reuse, and being able to repair something easily would enable it to be reused.

        I had a similar experience with a vacuum (random, I know). It broke, I took it to a vacuum repair shop (apparently those still exist) and the guy said the vacuum was designed to not be easily repairable, and that I would have to ship it back to the manufacturer for repair. I ended up buying another vacuum…

  8. Laughing_Boy48

    Apple sells most of its devices to consumers and consumers probably prefer the slim design and are less concerned about recyclability. Apple is wise to please the consumers who are buying their products as opposed to those government agencies that require EPEAT. Apple should just continue on its normal course.

    • eldernorm

      Karl, since you know so much, perhaps you will tell us what Apple is suddenly doing so wrong, since the same computers that had the certification are still make the same way?????

      Just curious.

      • AlbOrz Elvis Heydaryan

        Apple is still following the 10 principles of good design and one of them is: “a good design is environment friendly”.
        and just because they don’t follow one organization’s requirements, doesn’t mean they traded mother earth for money or something.
        they still use highly recyclable aluminum as the main chassis and refuse to use lot’s of harmful chemical stuff in their products.