Back in July, there was a big hubbub over the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool and Apple’s removal of its laptop line from the tool’s database. Shortly thereafter, Apple announced that it was re-adding its laptops and was working to update the IEEE 1680.1 standard that the EPEAT based the ‘repairability’ sections of its tool on.

Friday, the EPEAT updated its standards in order to make them more friendly to ultrathin laptops that may not be as easy to repair as traditional models. Today, Greenpeace issued a press release (via Techcrunch), that takes the EPEAT to task for those tweaks.

“EPEAT’s announcement today to include computers with difficult-to-replace batteries in its green electronics registry will result in less recycling and more e-waste,” says Greenpeace IT analyst Casey Harrell. Apple’s Retina MacBook Pro has glued-in batteries that are not very easy to remove for repair or replacement.

Greenpeace goes on to take exception to the EPEAT’s new testing methods, and make some traditionally bold statements about how consumers will not bother to have their devices repaired and will just throw them away and buy new ones instead.

Here’s the statement from the EPEAT on the changes to its testing that have allowed for the Retina MacBook Pro to be given Gold status in the registry:

In this new era of fast paced innovation in sustainable design, it’s critical that we move away from old black and white paradigms – assumptions that “all manufacturers are greenwashing”  or  “certification organizations bend their findings to suit their clients” – while being creative and thoughtful about driving and rewarding effective new approaches.

Here are the bits that the EPEAT says needed updating to take into account new ultra-thin laptops:

  • Upgradeability of components
  • Common availability of tools for disassembly
  • The ability to safely and easily remove key components as part of product disassembly for recycling

And here’s how those rules were tweaked:

  • A tool is deemed to be “commonly available” as long as it can be purchased by any individual or business without restrictions and is readily available for purchase on the open market. The tools may be purchasable at a local retail store, or by any individual or business via a mail or web-based retailer. Tools that are proprietary or require licensing or other agreements between the buyer and seller are not considered commonly available.
  • Products containing externally accessible ports such as a high performance serial bus or a USB are capable of being upgraded by adding a hard disk, DVD, floppy drive, memory and cards, and therefore conform to this criterion.

So, Apple has managed to get the rules changed after all, in ways that make the registry’s certification standards much more friendly to its agressive manufacturing advancements and processes. Here’s how I put the chances of the EPEAT making those changes  back in July:

In a letter at the EPEAT, [CEO Robert] Frisbee addresses the issue of an updated standard obliquely:

“An interesting question for EPEAT is how to reward innovations that are not yet envisioned with standards that are fixed at a point in time”

Let me shake my translation ball one last time. “Whatever standards we’re going to use to test the Retina MacBook Pro will be updated to take into account Apple’s fancy new manufacturing techniques.”

There are, Frisbee is careful to point out, rare cases where a product is added to the registry, fails to meet standards, and is forced to be removed. Can you see that happening to Apple?

And there you have it, Apple has its newly adjusted standards and the MacBook Pro has its Gold rating. Now, note that the EPEAT also tested laptops from Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba to come up with these new standards, so don’t think that Apple is the only one benefiting here. Other ultra-slim laptops will also benefit from these new, much looser, definitions of repairability.

Still, one has to wonder if they would have gotten that benefit without Apple throwing its weight behind it. The safe bet is no.

Progress is a harsh mistress though, and I’m not sure that the idyllic standards of Greenpeace will ever hold up in the face of the markets hunger for slimmer and more powerful machines. The line in the sand is mutable, and Apple knows which direction it wants to push it.