Apple 2.0

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How did the new MacBook Pros get Gold-level green ratings?

July 14, 2012: 8:07 AM ET

They may not stick. A recycling coalition says the notebooks flunk two key tests

The glued-in batteries. Photo: iFixit

FORTUNE -- Apple (AAPL) may have thought it put the EPEAT kerfuffle behind it with the release of Bob Mansfield's mea culpa letter Friday. (See Stop the presses! Apple admits it made a mistake.)

But having extricated itself from one environmental cow pie, the company may have stepped right into another.

Here's what happened.

On Friday, as promised in the letter, the company put "all eligible Apple products" back on the Green Electronics Council's registry -- giving them the Gold label that indicates they are okay for purchase by the schools and government agencies that are required to buy only EPEAT-approved computers.

But Apple went one step further. It also gave Gold labels to all four models of its new MacBook Pro with Retina display -- devices whose batteries are famously affixed to their aluminum frames with industrial strength glue so powerful that the disassembly experts at iFixit couldn't remove them without "leaking hazardous goo all over."

The Electronics TakeBack Coalition -- a pro-recycling group whose members range from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition to the Environmental Defense Fund -- was quick to spot the sleight of hand.

"We seriously doubt that these Mac Books should qualify for EPEAT at any level," wrote Barbara Kyle, the ETBC's National Coordinator, on the organization's website, "because we think they flunk two required criteria in the 'Design for End of Life' section of the standard. They are:

  • Criterion 4.3.1.3: External enclosures shall be easily removable by one person alone with commonly available tools.
    While you can open up the enclosure, you can't completely remove one half of the casing from the large group of batteries. They are glued to the case with industrial strength glue.
  •  Criterion 4.3.1.5 Identification and removal of components containing hazardous materials. 
    This criteria specifically applies to batteries, as well as circuit boards over 10 cm2 and other components, and says they must be safely and easily removable. Gluing the battery in does not quality as 'easily removable.' In fact, it's exactly the kind of design that this standard seeks to discourage."

So how did the new MacBooks get those Gold label ratings?

Kyle explains: "It's important to understand that the manufacturers grade themselves against the EPEAT criteria first, and then EPEAT conducts a review of this grading. That EPEAT review has not yet occurred. They can require the manufacturers to remove any product from the registry if it is not found to conform to the IEEE standard."

She adds: "Apple is often a design leader in electronics, but they really blew it here."

Meanwhile, the folks at Investor Village's AAPL Sanity board have shed some light on the timing Apple's initial withdrawl from EPEAT. It turns out that there's an annual fee for getting on the registry and a separate fee for each listed product. These fees are not insubstantial. In Apple's case they come to several million dollars a year, and they came due on July 1.

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Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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