REM

The federal government just dropped EPEAT from its green electronics standards. The policy change—made without warning or fanfare—was part of an updated executive order issued late last month, which simply omitted EPEAT from the government’s previous language. When it comes to evaluating a device’s effect on the environment, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (or EPEAT) is the gold standard. Literally. The tool ranks products as either Gold, Silver, or Bronze—depending on adherence to a set of green criteria. Considerations on EPEAT’s sustainability checklist include material selection, design for end-of-life, and product longevity—including upgradeability and repairability.

There is a growing awareness among consumers that our mania for electronics is wreaking environmental havoc: e-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, electronics factories regularly make headlines for exploiting workers, and materials mining scars lives as well as landscapes. Standards like EPEAT help consumers determine which manufacturers are taking steps to mitigate their effect on the environment.

Back in 2007, President George W. Bush added EPEAT as a sort of buying guide for the government, too. Which makes sense. The federal government employs over 2.7 million people—and it’s responsible for an enormous fleet of computers, cell phones, tablets, servers, and a myriad of other electronic equipment. Longer device lifetimes—something that EPEAT ranks as part of its metrics—reduce the overall cost of technology. And EPEAT’s sustainability criteria greens up Uncle Sam. Eliminating EPEAT from the new executive order throws the White House’s environmental commitment into question.

“It is surprising to see the EPEAT support left out of the latest executive order," said Robert Frisbee, CEO of the Green Electronics Council—the body that manages EPEAT. "Many important players including U.S. agencies, private sector institutional purchasers and environmental advocates have been striving to maintain the government’s commitment to EPEAT. This legacy period for the administration would seem to provide an opportunity to enhance environmental goals, and this seems contradicted by this order."

It’s unclear why the feds dropped EPEAT from their language—or if they plan to institute a new standard in its place.

“What will take EPEAT's place will be, at best, a set of even weaker standards that have no verification of the claims being made as true. EPEAT became a victim of its own success and a victim of the processes put in place to keep it strong—they became inconvenient for both manufacturers and purchasers and, now, ultimately those factors will lead to the end of a green thing,” said Mark Schaffer, one of the authors of the EPEAT standard. “With the new executive order, the federal government has gone away from the leadership position they established with the EPEAT system. These changes would not have occurred without the prompting and support of industry, who are now disenchanted with the EPEAT program.”

When asked for comment by E-Scrap News as to why the standard was dropped, the White House was bureaucratic and vague. Essentially, they gave a non-answer.

“The executive order establishes sustainability criteria that the federal community should use to help with product selection, management and disposal, and it avoids endorsement or recommendation of any particular non-federal label," a statement by the White House's Council on Environmental Quality read. "The administration will continue to work with private and non-governmental sector standards bodies to ensure the federal community has adequate information to continue to promote electronic stewardship across the Federal government."

Still, the updated executive order provides scant requirements for electronics—except to establish “procurement preference for environmentally sustainable electronic products.” The White House, though, doesn’t actually explain what exactly makes a product sustainable—certainly not with any of the detail that EPEAT does.

Of course, EPEAT isn’t perfect—and we’ve been critical of it in the past. Manufacturers have a history of exploiting the system, claiming a “gold” rating for products that aren’t really green.

Back in 2012, for example, Apple earned itself the highest rating for the Retina MacBook Pro—a laptop that isn’t repairable and isn’t upgradeable. The Retina MPB also features a glued-down battery, which makes it difficult for refurbishers to reuse and dangerous for recyclers to process. At the time, we argued that those design choices should have factored negatively into the device’s EPEAT score. They didn’t—and we felt pretty strongly that EPEAT wasn’t living up to its name. The new MacBook released today, too, claims EPEAT Gold despite absolutely no upgradeability (the only way it’s possibly upgradeable is with an adapter that splits USB for power and other things).

But even if EPEAT is less rigorous in its interpretation than we’d like, green standards are there for a reason. At least in theory, they force product designers to take end-of-life into account. Until recently, not doing so had consequences: the government wouldn’t buy your products.

Now that incentive just lost the rest of its teeth. So far, there’s no word as to what sustainability system, if any, will take EPEAT’s place. Or if there’s really any rigorous green standard that the government would even be willing to adopt. In light of a lack of effective voluntary standards, European governments and some American states are considering passing eco-design laws with mandatory requirements. France just passed a law requiring products come labeled with their expected lifespan. Without a voluntary standard like EPEAT, American legislators may be more inclined to step in with regulations.

Still, the new Executive Order may not be EPEAT’s swan song. The standard’s name still appears in other government contracts. And the standard is included in the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), which is more difficult to change. So it’s possible that—in the short term— EPEAT’s “removal may not significantly alter the U.S. government’s procurement outlook,” Frisbee said. He added that “private sector purchasers and environmental advocates alike” have asked President Obama to reconsider the omission.

So, EPEAT might get a repeat. But for right now, the green standard is on shaky ground.

Image by James Montgomery Flagg (Library of Congress), via Wikimedia Commons