The surprisingly short life of new electronic devices
Two years ago, Desmond Hughes heard so many of his favorite podcasters extolling AirPods, Apple’s tiny, futuristic $170 wireless headphones, that he decided they were worth the splurge. He quickly became a convert.
Hughes is still listening to podcasters talk about their AirPods, but now they’re complaining. The battery can no longer hold a charge, they say, rendering them functionally useless. Apple bloggers agree: “AirPods are starting to show their age for early adopters,” Zac Hall, an editor at 9to5Mac, wrote in a post in January, detailing how he frequently hears a low-battery warning in his AirPods now. Earlier this month, Apple Insider tested a pair of AirPods purchased in 2016 against a pair from 2018, and found that the older pair died after two hours and 16 minutes. “That’s less than half the stated battery life for a new pair,” the writer William Gallagher concluded.
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Hughes, who is 35 and lives in Newport News, Virginia, has noticed a similar thing about his own set: At first, their charge lasted five hours, but now they sometimes last only half an hour. He frequently listens to one while charging the other—not optimal conditions for expensive headphones. He’s now gearing up to plunk down more money on another pair. “I just wish they would increase the battery life,” he told me. (On Wednesday, Apple announced it would soon release a new generation of AirPods, but did not say whether the devices would have longer lives.)
The lithium-ion batteries that power AirPods are everywhere. One industry report forecast that sales would grow to $109.72 billion by 2026, from $36.2 billion in 2018. They charge faster, last longer, and pack more power into a small space than other types of batteries do. But they die faster, too, often after just a few years, because every time you charge them, they degrade a little. They can also catch fire or explode if they become damaged, so technology companies make them difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to replace themselves.
The result: A lot of barely chargeable AirPods and wireless mice and Bluetooth speakers are ending up in the trash as consumers go through products—even expensive ones—faster than ever.
Hughes told me that he and his girlfriend upgrade their iPhones every two years, as they do their iPad. “I guess we don’t keep our technology super long,” he told me. And why should he? Every few months, new tech products come out boasting substantial updates and better batteries. A German environmental agency found that the proportion of products sold to replace a defective appliance grew from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 8.3 percent in 2012.
Kyle Wiens, the founder of iFixit, an open-source DIY repair guide, believes companies should be designing devices that allow the batteries to be swapped out, which may mean finding different battery technologies. But lithium-ion batteries will continue to dominate technology for at least another 10 years, says Sofiane Boukhalfa, a project architect at PreScouter, a technology-research firm. Advances in battery technology are notoriously slow, especially as devices, and the batteries inside them, become smaller.
This means the world will continue to generate a lot of waste. Of the 3.4 million tons of electronic waste generated in America in 2012—an 80 percent increase from 2000—just 29 percent was recycled. “Imagine that every single thing in the world has the same life span as a battery, and wore out after 12 to 18 months,” Wiens told me. “It would be catastrophic for consumers and even worse for the planet.”
But, of course, companies design for performance and sales, not life span. They make money when they sell more units, and they’re not financially responsible for disposing of products when consumers are finished using them. Nadim Maluf, the founder of the battery consultancy Qnovo, told me that a decade ago, he went to big tech companies telling them he could help them double the longevity of their products, by extending the life of the lithium-ion batteries they were beginning to use. “No one really cared,” he told me. “Extending product life wasn’t consistent with growth on the financial side.”
Apple officials declined to speak on the record for this story. But in 2017, the company announced that it was working toward a closed-loop supply chain, in which 100 percent of its materials will be recycled or renewed. Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of Environment, Policy, and Social Initiatives, has said the company wants to keep products in use as long as possible. Apple also encourages consumers to trade in their devices to be recycled, for a small credit: Someone trading in an iPhone 5, for instance, could get $40 off the $999 price of an iPhone XS.
But even consumers who hang on to their iPhones as long as possible learned in 2017 that Apple released a software update that slows down old phones to counteract aging lithium-ion battery problems. And ultimately, there isn’t a huge incentive for any company to make products that last for years. If Apple were to make its products longer-lasting, it would likely sell fewer new products and post lower profits. Already analyst concerns about lower iPhone sales sent shares tumbling late last year. Apple said in its most recent earnings report that sales of “wearables,” including AirPods and Apple Watches, grew 50 percent from the same period in the previous year.
Waste is one of the inherent features of a consumer-spending-driven economy: Companies keep selling things in order to post profits, consumers keep buying them because they have disposable income, and our standard of living improves. There is little apparent downside when consumers throw things away—trash disappears from office buildings and apartment buildings overnight.
But lithium-ion batteries are different from other waste. Tossing them in the trash can create fires at waste-management facilities. And unfettered consumption has big upstream costs: The more devices with lithium-ion batteries that aren’t recycled, the more companies have to mine the finite resources that go into those batteries. Most lithium-ion batteries contain cobalt, which is often mined in terrible conditions in the developing world. (A handful of states, including Minnesota and New York, require battery manufacturers to fund recycling and collection programs, and some states prohibit the disposal of batteries in landfills, but many more states have no requirements that consumers recycle their batteries.)
Apple has gained fans for its sleek design. But part of that design is soldering its batteries inside the unit, meaning consumers can’t easily replace them themselves. This was a feature that stumped reviewers when Apple unveiled the iPhone in 2007—Joe Nocera of The New York Times called it “an extreme act of consumer unfriendliness”—but has since become common in phones. It means the batteries in AirPods and many other Apple devices are essentially impossible to replace or recycle yourself.
When the AirPods were released, Wiens took them apart to see how difficult it would be to strip the headphones of their lithium-ion batteries and other material. He found that because Apple glues AirPods together, the only way to separate the battery from the case would be to use a knife, which means risking an explosion.
Wireless headphones don’t have to be difficult to repair; iFixit has found that Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, for example, are repairable, because they are held together with clips and not glue. But whether intentional or not, Apple’s design choice, Wiens said, is serving to discourage reuse or recycling by making it hard for consumers to do it by themselves, and expensive and dangerous even for professionals.
This frustrates even some hard-core Apple fans. After Chris, a Mac fan who lives in San Francisco, noticed that his AirPods would hold a charge for only about 20 minutes at a time, he looked into replacing the battery. (Chris did not want his last name used because he is a product designer who sometimes freelances for Apple.) He quickly found that it wasn’t possible. “If I could fix things myself, I would do it—it’s just so difficult to do it,” he said. Apple does allow consumers to pay for what it calls a “battery replacement” for AirPods, but each “replaced” AirPod is $49.
Chris rattled off a few other things he uses daily that have irreplaceable batteries—his wireless mouse, also purchased from Apple, and his Bluetooth speaker, for example. “It feels like we’re moving in this direction of having all these things, and there’s no way to fix them,” he said.
And once they’re broken, consumers don’t know what to do with them. China stopped accepting much of America’s recycling last year because so much of the plastic and paper it was receiving was contaminated.* Often consumers don’t know where to put products such as AirPods that no longer work. Do they go in the recycling? In the garbage? Will Goodwill even accept them? “We haven’t made it really obvious to consumers how to get rid of this stuff appropriately,” said Michael Rohwer, a director of Business for Social Responsibility, which works with companies that try to be more environmentally friendly. Because many devices today are so small, it doesn’t seem like a big deal to toss those old headphones or chargers in the trash.
Some tech companies have figured out how to make more sustainable products. The Fairphone, for example, allows consumers to easily swap out the battery and other parts. Other companies have made it easier for consumers to recycle their electronics at the end of their useful life, Rohwer said; Dell offers prepaid shipping labels and has partnered with Goodwill to create a convenient place for consumers to drop off electronics, and HP provides customers with envelopes so they can recycle their ink cartridges.
But even companies thinking about sustainability have two conflicting messages for consumers: Buy more, and be more environmentally friendly. On Wednesday, after Apple announced that it was launching the second generation of AirPods, fans on Twitter were ecstatic, bidding farewell to their old AirPods and thanking the CEO, Tim Cook, and the company for releasing the new product.
Apple said the new AirPods contain a chip that allows users longer talk time before the battery runs out. But it didn’t specify whether the battery would last more than two years. That doesn’t bother Desmond Hughes. Sure, his AirPods lasted only two years, he told me, but he can’t imagine living without them.
Besides, most people will probably lose them before the battery runs out.
* This post originally mischaracterized China’s policies on accepting American recycling.