Apple chooses design over recyclability. Will anyone notice?

Steve Jobs Seeks to Remake Carbon Accounting via A Greener Apple

Last month Apple 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.


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