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Apple's EPEAT withdrawal raises recycling, disassembly concerns

Agam Shah | July 11, 2012
Apple's decision to withdraw products from the EPEAT standard it helped implement has raised concerns among industry observers and environmentalists, who said the design of the company's new products, including the Retina display, make laptops difficult to disassemble and recycle.

"The design may well be comprised of 'highly recyclable aluminum and glass' -- but my friends in the electronics recycling industry tell me they have no way of recycling aluminum that has glass glued to it like Apple did with both this machine and the recent iPad. The design pattern has serious consequences not only for consumers and the environment, but also for the tech industry as a whole," Wiens wrote in a blog entry.

The new MacBook Pro with Retina display does not meet a criteria on disassembly as stated in the EPEAT standard, and the design makes the casing and battery tough to recycle, said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics Takeback Coalition in San Francisco. The nonprofit organization promotes sustainable design in electronics.

Recyclers usually take out parts and separate the metal enclosure, which is then passed through a shredder. With components closely attached to the chassis, Apple has been making its laptops tougher to disassemble and recycle, which has created a conundrum for recyclers, Kyle said. The screen and battery have toxic materials and need to be able to easily separated, she said.

"This has been a direction they have been leaning in for a while. It's not a first," Kyle said.

Apple has been a leader in environmental programs and was among the first computer companies to phase out the use of harmful chemicals like brominated fire retardants (BFRs) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), said Casey Harrell, an IT analyst at Greenpeace International, which is part of the EPEAT standards process.

EPEAT can be a messy and frustrating affair with many stakeholders involved in the decision-making process, but the MacBook Pro design is less about EPEAT and more about Apple's efforts to gain more control over its products from the production to the end-of-life process, Harrell said.

"This is an issue where Apple chose their design attributes over environment," Harrell said.

Apple runs its own recycling program through its website.

Environmental organizations Greenpeace, Electronics Takeback Coalition and Basel Action Network also criticized the EPEAT decision-making process as being time-consuming and difficult, and also said top stakeholders out-muscled many of their requests. However, the organizations said that while EPEAT may not be perfect, it provided basic guidelines to build environmentally responsible PCs.


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