EPEAT explained

July 8th, 2010 in .Green Tech .Technology Features
Bobby O’Reilly
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Original image by FR Antunes @ Flikr

Original image by FR Antunes @ Flikr

Over the last few years technology manufacturers and the general public have been increasingly aware that the IT industry is roughly on a par with airlines in the league table of carbon culprits. Balancing the increasing demand from both the developed world and the millions of people in the developing world who are getting connected every year with a sense of environmental responsibility is tough.

Standards play an important role. For one thing, they reassure concerned customers that you’re currently building products which are in line with the best eco-aware practices. For another, many companies find themselves unable to commit to expensive eco-friendly solutions without some guarantee that their competitors won’t be undercutting them with cheap lead-filled alternatives.

As far as that first point goes, though, what do we really see when we look at a box covered in badges that proclaim the product inside has been certified EPEAT, ROHS, WEEE or decorated with a flower symbol? Is it just a pretty label? What does it mean?

This post is the first an occasional series that intends to find out, and by doing so help you make a more informed choice. The first certification to come under scrutiny is one of the most common. It’s called EPEAT, the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool.

There are three things that distinguish an EPEAT award from other marks like the European Eco-Label or Restriction of Hazardous Substances compliance. The first is that there are three different levels of certification within EPEAT, Bronze, Silver and Gold. The second is that manufacturers are allowed to self-certify, speeding up the process and ensuring more products are monitored. The third is that products which have been awarded an EPEAT rating don’t have to publicise the fact on the packaging.

How an award is won

Tacking those in reverse order, the last decision was reached in order to reduce the number of badges on boxes. It seems like a good idea, but does then raise the question ‘What’s the point?’ Corporate and government buyers tend to know what has been EPEAT approved and are often mandated to buy it, but regular consumers rarely look for hidden stamps of greenness.

The second issue is just as contentious. If manufacturers can award themselves a level of certification, won’t they just lie and give themselves better scores? So far, that hasn’t been the case. An award which everyone abuses would soon lose its value, and you can bet it wouldn’t be long before a routinely lying manufacturer was caught out. Other members of the EPEAT scheme keep a watchful eye on their competitors, and would be quick to report anyone thought to be abusing the rules.

If it weren’t for self-certification, EPEAT probably wouldn’t exist. Small component changes are common in the lifecycle of a tech product, a capacitor supplier might change during the production run, or a newer motherboard used in a TV without changing the model number. In some cases, up to 70% of the components may have changed over the production lifetime of a model number.

The Eee PC 1008P has an EPEAT gold rating.

And you’d have to have a massive number of people to recertify a product every time it changed. There are 51 total bits of criteria against which a piece of kit is judged to gain EPEAT labelling, from the materials used to build it, through power usage to the construction of the packaging. These are laid down in the international standard IEEE1680, and actually cover most of the other certificates like Energy Star, WEEE and ROHS.

Meeting the basic 23 points will earn a bronze award, meeting at least 50% of the rest gains silver and gold awards are given to anything which meets all 23 basic requirements and 75% of the rest.

So, now you know what EPEAT is, and why you should look for products that carry the rating.

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