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Recyclers disagree on impact of glued-in Retina MacBook Pro batteries

By Chris Foresman

Apple also says outside techs shouldn’t remove the battery “for any reason.”

MacBook Battery photo

The 6-cell, 95Whr lithium-polymer battery used in the Retina MacBook Pro, which Apple says techs shouldn’t touch. Photo by iFixit.

Ars Technica, July 18, 2012

Apple’s solution to shaving thickness from the Retina MacBook Pro—gluing its lithium polymer battery cells directly to the aluminum unibody shell—continues to spark debate among proponents of sustainable electronics. Apple submitted the device to the Green Electronics Council for an EPEAT Gold rating last week, prompting critics to argue that the glued-in battery should disqualify it from any rating at all. But it turns out that some recyclers disagree, saying it isn’t dramatically more difficult to safely remove the battery than in other modern devices.

Muddying the waters further is Apple itself. On the one hand, Apple’s position seems to be that the Retina MacBook Pro qualifies for its EPEAT rating because the battery can be easily removed with “common” tools. On the other hand, an internal memo sent to AppleCare and certified third-party technicians claims that the battery should not be removed from the aluminum casing “for any reason.”

All due to some glue

The Retina MacBook Pro features a six-cell lithium polymer battery with a 95 Whr capacity—a 23 percent increase over the previous MacBook Pro design. To pack the larger battery inside the thinner case of the Retina MacBook Pro, however, Apple opted to attach the cells directly to the upper unibody casing using an industrial-strength adhesive.

That fact alone caused a wave of debate over repair issues. Teardown experts at iFixit criticized the decision by pointing out that the design made repair or replacement difficult, if not outright impossible, for users or third-party repair technicians. Apple does offer a battery replacement program, though it costs a pretty penny, at $199.

Then, just weeks after the Retina MacBook Pro was released, Apple raised eyebrows in the tech industry by removing all of its products from the EPEAT green electronics registry. The move was surprising for a couple of reasons. As part of Apple’s marketing, it has touted the fact that all of its computers had been given EPEAT’s highest “Gold” rating. Apple was a member of EPEAT, a voluntary registry and rating system for electronics manufacturers. And Apple was also involved in creating the IEEE 1680 standards which form the basis of EPEAT’s ratings criteria.

But those standards were drafted in 2006 (and ratified in 2009). Apple’s recent complaint implied that the standards had not been updated to account for many of the newer improvements Apple and some other manufacturers had implemented, such as the removal of PVC plastics and brominated flame retardants, or achieving newer, more strict Energy Star ratings. ”Apple products are superior in other important environmental areas not measured by EPEAT, such as removal of toxic materials,” Apple spokesperson Kristin Huget said in defense of the company’s withdrawal from EPEAT.

Many observers believed that Apple’s quest for ever-thinner computers and devices was behind the move. Apple’s engineering efforts have resulted in impressively thin laptops and tablets, for instance, but the trade-off is that the devices are harder to disassemble and repair. Days after the pull-out, though, Apple Senior VP of Product Engineering Bob Mansfield posted a public letter to Apple’s website announcing that the company would rejoin EPEAT and work with the group to update its standards.

“We’ve recently heard from many loyal Apple customers who were disappointed to learn that we had removed our products from the EPEAT rating system. I recognize that this was a mistake. Starting today, all eligible Apple products are back on EPEAT,” Mansfield wrote.

More surprising than the pull-out and reversal, however, is that Apple included the Retina MacBook Pro and its troubled battery among its registered EPEAT products, claiming it qualified for “Gold” status.

Barbara Kyle, speaking for the Electronics Take Back Coalition (ETBC), suggested that the Retina MacBook Pro should not qualify for an EPEAT rating of any kind. Her analysis of the battery, based on work by iFixit, was that it can’t safely and easily be removed with simple tools, a required criterion for an EPEAT rating.

“Ease” of removal is relative

Ars spoke to two large companies that specialize in recycling electronics to find out their opinions on just how difficult the Retina MacBook Pro’s battery is to remove. Surprisingly, both seemed confident that the glued-in battery wouldn’t present any major difficulties.

“We haven’t seen it yet for recycling, but we have dealt with glued-in batteries in the past,” Sims Recycling Solutions America President Steve Skurnac told Ars. “It’s a little more difficult, for sure, than those that pop out. Some products come in where the batteries are deep inside or hidden; having them glued in makes it a little more difficult, but not a lot more.”

Sims is contracted by Apple to recycle the devices gathered by the company’s electronics take-back program, and it services Macs, iPhones, and iPads, as well as PCs, smartphones, and other devices from competing manufacturers.

“We are always looking at issues for different kinds of products, so I don’t know that these new MacBook Pros are going to be horribly difficult [to take apart], or maybe just mildly inconvenient.”

ECS Refining is more confident that the battery can be efficiently removed from the Retina MacBook Pro, however. CEO Jim Taggart told Ars that it has already dealt with some pre-production samples, and that the battery can be separated from the case using a tool similar to a common putty knife. Removing the battery “just takes a different process,” Taggart said.

“Puncturing the battery is a risk with other devices, and in our experience, scraping the battery out of a [Retina] MacBook Pro is no riskier,” Taggart explained. “Lithium ion can be a dangerous material, but it’s in everything now. We have whole processes to remove these from devices before separating out other materials.”

Still, iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens disputed the claim that scraping the battery would be particularly easy. The problem is that the individual cells are glued into 2mm-deep wells sculpted into the aluminum unibody. Wiens suggested that the design makes simple scraping a non-option, as his own careful attempts to do the same resulted in a punctured battery cell. And punctured Li-Po batteries can combust when their internal chemistry mixes with air.

To the left and right of the underside of the trackpad, you can just discern the edges of the sculpted wells that hold four of the Retina MacBook Pro’s six Li-Po cells. Photo by iFixit

“Recyclers have a can-do attitude—they’ll say they can do anything, and they will find a way to do it,” Wiens told Ars. “The issue is that when products take them a long time to disassemble, it erodes their profit margins. There’s no way they could be profitable if all their products were as hard to disassemble as Apple’s.”

Indeed, smaller recyclers apparently find working with Apple machines problematic, according to ETBC’s Kyle. “A common complaint that we hear from recyclers that aren’t under contract with Apple is that their devices are harder to take apart and take more time. Product designers are primarily thinking about performance, not ‘how many steps does it take to remove the battery?’” she said.

But both Skernac and Taggart say that what they characterize as a “little” extra effort is worth it because Apple’s devices contain more high-quality materials that are easier to recycle and worth more money.

“Apple tends to be more recyclable and more valuable than what’s made by other manufacturers,” Taggart explained. “Is there extra effort to remove the battery? Yes, but the other materials being used make it a more preferable device to be recycled.”

“If I had to make a choice of material to take in, it would always be Apple over other manufacturers,” Taggart said.

Skernac agreed. “Apple equipment tends to have more metal, less plastic, and therefore more value than other devices, so that can make up for a more difficult [battery] removable process.”

“We’ll devise a way to remove them in a safe manner. From our perspective, we would make sure that the process won’t run the risk of puncturing the battery,” Skernac said. “That may be some kind of bench setup that uses a custom machine to safely remove the batteries. But at this time, we’re anticipating being able to do it with common tools.”

“Electronic anorexia”

Whether or not Apple’s devices are more valuable, though, the trend toward thinner devices could make the Retina MacBook Pro’s issues spread to devices from other manufacturers.

“Creating custom jigs for disassembling each kind of product seems reasonable for a company like Apple, but when you realize [recyclers] have thousands of different kinds of products coming in every day, that approach rapidly becomes untenable,” Wiens argued.

ETBC’s Kyle said that custom processes seem at odds with the EPEAT standard, which says that batteries and other hazardous materials need to be “easy” to disassemble. “It doesn’t seem from the analysis that iFixit did that the process is easy,” she told Ars.

Apple’s own service advisory for the Retina MacBook Pro, a copy of which was obtained by TreeHugger and shared with Ars, seems to confirm that view.

“The MacBook Pro (Retina, Mid 2012) top case assembly includes an embedded battery, keyboard, fan ducts and microphone,” reads to the memo. “Batteries must be replaced with the top case assembly. The battery alone is not a replaceable part.” (Emphasis ours.)

Furthermore, technicians aren’t supposed to separate the battery from the unibody casing. “Batteries should not be separated from the top case assembly for any reason,” Apple wrote. (Again, emphasis ours.) Top casing assemblies that are dropped or damaged are to be immediately “DOA’d” and replaced. “Do not use the dropped or damaged top case assembly with battery.”

Kyle believes that the Retina MacBook Pro is really just the tip of iceberg for problems with thinner devices, however. “I see that Apple is trying to meet a perceived customer desire for thinness, but it seems to us that it’s sort of like ‘electronic anorexia’—the device gets thinner, but it comes with important downsides like a difficult or expensive-to-remove battery,” she said.

“Typically, we don’t think that enough attention is paid to end-of-life issues in the design phase,” Kyle explained. “This new really thin stuff, like ultrabooks, is kind of a new breed, and it’s just emerging as a sustainability issue. EPEAT needs to recognize the issue, but we also think sustainability should be a design goal within the industry.”

It seems that EPEAT has decided to take the issue seriously. “A lot of good questions have been raised” around the issue of the Retina MacBook Pro, according to Sarah O’Brien, director of outreach and communications for EPEAT. “As a result, we’ve launched surveillance of the whole group of ultra-light laptops,” she told IDG News on Wednesday.

As we noted on Monday, registration with EPEAT is voluntary. The group depends on companies to accurately and fairly rate their products against the EPEAT criteria on their own. Then, EPEAT will audit those ratings to keep companies in check. EPEAT plans to double-check Apple’s claims about the Retina MacBook Pro along with other thin laptops and ultrabooks registered as “green.”

Additionally, EPEAT is working with Apple and other stakeholders to update the IEEE standards on which its criteria are based. “The outcome must reward new directions for both design and sustainability, simultaneously supporting the environment and the market for all manufacturers’ elegant and high-performance products,” EPEAT CEO Robert Frisbee wrote in an open letter last Friday, in response to Apple’s re-commitment to the group.

Getting philosophical

iFixit’s Wiens has been a proponent of designing electronics to be easy to repair and recycle ever since a trip to Africa opened his eyes to the growing e-waste problem. “Repair is better than recycling,” Wiens said. “We can become vastly more sustainable by fixing things when they break rather than mining them for raw materials.”

ETBC’s Kyle also decried the trend towards difficult-to-disassemble devices, which she said creates an attitude that devices are simply disposable. ”Consumers tend to toss devices instead of opting for an expensive battery replacement,” she told Ars.

“As one of the largest electronics recyclers in the country, we’re supportive of the Electronics Take Back Coalition and the ideas it promotes,” Taggart added, suggesting the recent controversy is more of a philosophical issue than a practical recycling issue. “To me, there’s a big picture here that is missed when people say the battery can’t be easily removed. The question we should be asking is, ‘is this device going to last a long time?’”

“Typical Apple devices last about twice as long as other devices, and users use them much longer. To me that’s ‘philosophically’ better than having to recycle it in the first place,” Taggart said. “Whether it takes one minute or two minutes to separate the battery makes little difference in the end. If gluing it in makes it last twice as long, that’s an overall plus than if it falls out when you take it apart.”

Skurnac believes that increasing promotion of take-back programs and recycling opportunities is perhaps more pragmatic that worrying about the Retina MacBook Pro’s battery.

“A lot of manufacturers have been improving the recyclability of their products, largely from reducing the types of materials and chemicals used,” Skurnac said. “Reducing the number of types of plastics from 22 to 4 or 5 makes it easier to effectively separate. Metals are relatively straightforward to recover and reuse compared to plastic. And there has been a reduction in the number of potentially hazardous materials.”

“But what we are recycling today are devices that were manufactured five years ago or more, so we don’t yet see much benefit from the changes,” Skurnac continued. “It will take some time before we see those devices come through.”

We asked Skurnac if manufacturers should be doing more, like coming up with a standard way to secure batteries inside devices.

“If we had one significant message for manufacturers, it’s that they should be doing more to get consumers involved in recycling this stuff responsibly,” he said. “It certainly helps to account for recycling in the design, but right now we think awareness would help even more.”