If you lot were among the beginning adopters of Apple’s popular AirPods when they came out in 2016, it’s highly likely yous’re already considering a new pair.
With some users reporting battery life budgeted just 50 percent of the advertised five hours after just two years of buying, AirPods have amid the highest turnover of whatever modern electronics device you lot tin can buy. The tiny batteries in each headphone — equivalent to about 1 percent of the battery in an iPhone seven – appear to begin showing their historic period for some users afterwards just a couple of years of frequent use.
For many tech fans, this may not seem like much of an issue: The boilerplate person replaces their phone every 2.88 years, why should wireless earbuds be any different?
The answer to that question is scarier than y’all might recall. Not only are AirPods and many of their wireless contemporaries nearly impossible to repair, at that place’s also often no proper way to dispose of them safely.
In fact, in many ways, those tiny wireless earbuds yous love are the perfect symbol of the tech industry’due south perceived lack of ecology responsibility, love of profits, and flippant mental attitude when it comes to the eastward-waste it creates.
Impossible to fix
AirPods and many headphones like them are meant to be dispensable in fairly brusque guild, but they don’t have to exist.
The limitations of small lithium-ion batteries accept been well known by manufacturers, engineers, and designers, even every bit they’ve become the standard for powering portable devices over the past several decades. It’s bones engineering math: Put a small battery in a device, let it recharge a few grand times, and it will need replacement.
Only Apple and other manufacturers oft make information technology nearly impossible to supersede old, worn-out batteries, which would instantly convalesce the primary issue plaguing so many “true wireless headphones” that take been in apply for an extended period.
“The listing of tools that y’all demand to become into an AirPod implies that these are not meant to exist repaired, or refurbished, or resold to anybody else,” says Kevin Purdy from iFixit, a website that provides teardown and repair guides for popular tech gadgets, and has done a full teardown of both generations of AirPods. “It is all merely incommunicable to exercise anything to them without dissentious them and making them useless.”
That’s considering, instead of using screws, clips, or other removable and replaceable attaching mechanisms, Apple’south AirPods and enough of other headphones like them are glued together from the manufactory. This gives them a sleek, creaseless look but it also makes them well-nigh incommunicable to crack open up to replace the batteries inside, even if all other functions of the headphones are still in good order.
In fact, replacing the battery in a pair of AirPods is so hard that it could actually be dangerous; puncturing a lithium-ion bombardment pack by accident while attempting to open the headphones for repair could crusade a burn down.
While the AirPods are the best-selling true wireless headphones by a wide margin, Apple tree’southward little white hockey sticks are far from the only culprits. In their quest to go along headphones meaty and competitive, many manufacturers take followed suit, designing their true wireless models with very little means of battery replacement.
“As things get smaller, and manufacturers get greedier, things become so much more than difficult to give a new life once the previous owner has discarded them,” says Amber Schmidt, the Manager of Technology Refurbishment at not-turn a profit organization Free Geek.
iFixit uses a 0-10 scale for rating the repairability of products. The highest-scoring true wireless headphones, Samsung’s Milky way Buds, got a mediocre 6/10 due to their use of clips and a relatively common battery. AirPods and the Beats Powerbeats Pro (besides made by Apple) got abysmal 0/x and 1/10 ratings, respectively. Apple does offer a replacement service for AirPods with poor battery life, merely at $69 per earbud ($138 per pair), nosotros imagine nigh shoppers will just determine to buy the newer model for $xx more.
The reasoning behind this design seems elementary enough: Repairs are bad for profits.
One expert nosotros interviewed was quick to share her own opinion on the subject: “It’s all upside for them,” says Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair System, “They go to sell another set.”
Nowhere to go
So, if you can’t fix your AirPods or other true wireless headphones when you desire a new pair, what can you practise with your old pair?
When it comes to AirPods, you really but take 1 good option.
The only way Apple recommends getting rid of crumbling AirPods is via its in-business firm trade-in service, which provides buyers a aircraft label to mail the devices dorsum to the company for them to be properly disposed of. Buyers get no credit for returning the headphones for proper disposal.
AirPods are so well-glued together, it’s unclear whether even Apple is willing and able to remove and supersede batteries without rendering the headphones totally unusable.
Nosotros reached out to Apple for clarification as to whether batteries tin can exist replaced, or if those $69 battery replacement AirPods are simply brand new AirPods — every bit well as to ask several other questions regarding Apple’due south design and recycling processes. The company would just speak to united states of america off the record, but did betoken us to several public sources that discussed lithium-ion batteries, links to its recycling programs, and a Medium article virtually the lifecycle of AirPods. Our contact did not comment on whether the batteries are replaceable.
Again, Apple is not the only, or even the biggest culprit hither, it’s just got the most popular earbuds past a pretty wide margin. Other headphone manufacturers don’t even offer in-house recycling. What’s worse, the thousands of e-waste material facilities in Northward America aren’t prepared to deal with disposing of true wireless earbuds.
“Oft what happens on the electronics recycling side with items that can’t be hands disassembled is that they’ll get shredded,” says Amanda LaGrange, CEO of Tech Dump, a Minnesota-based e-waste recycler. “You can’t shred these things because they have lithium-ion batteries in them, and that causes a very significant burn down gamble.”
As a issue, truthful wireless headphones oftentimes demand to be disassembled by hand, which is often not worth the expense — the small amount of recyclable materials inside frequently makes it unfeasible.
To make matters worse, most waste product companies take no blueprint as to how to properly decommission these headphones and then they do not pose a fire risk. Apple tree in particular hasn’t don’t its best to communicate with the thousands of e-waste recyclers in the United states of america outside of the select few with which it holds contracts, leaving companies like Tech Dump in the dark as to how to properly dispose of its headphones.
In fact, LaGrange says the company doesn’t fifty-fifty know which e-waste facilities have Apple contracts.
“In that location is no specific identify that I tin can go to and say, ‘Ok, these AirPods came in and because we don’t have the training that we would ideally take, or the tools and the manuals that we would ideally have, instead nosotros should [send them] here.’”
As of May, Apple tree had publicly acknowledged a contract with Winstron GreenTech, but declined to name any other recyclers with which information technology contracts.
Instead, e-waste product recyclers are left to their own devices, often relying on iFixit teardowns and other third-parties to testify them what is inside the products they’re sent for disposal.
“For only a few to take the scoop on how to make sure this is done properly, it’south not responsible blueprint at all,” says LaGrange.
The bigger eastward-waste product problem is unproblematic dollars and cents. Fifty-fifty when wireless earbuds are easy to take apart by manus, doing and so might not actually be worth what it costs to pay employees to detach them. In the same commodity in which Apple confirmed that Winstron GreenTech was an due east-waste partner, Winstron confirmed that portions of AirPods tin can be recycled, including the battery, but that the value of what is recovered doesn’t encompass the toll of recovering information technology. In the case of AirPods, at least, Apple – to its credit –pays Winstrom the departure.
A growing trouble
It’s worth noting that, though true wireless models have been on the marketplace for a few years at present, they have yet to inundate facilities like Tech Dump.
Every bit they proceed to grow in popularity — 12.5 one thousand thousand pairs of wireless headphones shipped in the fourth quarter of 2018 alone, 60 percent of which are Apple’s — LaGrange expects the disposal trouble to become more serious. It’southward also why this article shines the brightest calorie-free on the Cupertino-based visitor in detail: Apple tree is by far the well-nigh popular manufacturer of these types of headphones, leaving it with some responsibility to lead the way when it comes to helping make repairable and easily recyclable products.
Correct to repair
Recycling, especially of iPhones, has been a key source of publicity for Apple tree in recent years, with the company spending pregnant money to ensure that it has the chapters to properly dispose of its phones.
According to experts like Purdy, though, that’southward not enough.
“They can tout their new recycling facility and laboratory that they’ve created which is a good matter to have, much like sandbags are skillful in the case of a overflowing,” he says. “The all-time thing to do is to keep a product out of the waste matter stream.”
Equally consumers of these products, it’south our responsibleness to demand more than from those who make them, and to do our best to ensure that what we are purchasing won’t terminate up in a facility like LaGrange’s until many years down the line.
The almost obvious solution to the true wireless headphone problem (and the overarching problem with due east-waste in full general) is to make products with relatively standard parts that can be easily fixed past professionals without training.
“People used to fix their stuff all the time,” says Gordon-Byrne. “There used to be little gear up-information technology shops all beyond America. Information technology’s only that they couldn’t become the parts, they couldn’t get the tools, they couldn’t get the diagnostics, and they went out of business.”
Cut the waste
Wireless headphones don’t have to be dispensable: If we fabricated them easy to repair, in that location is no reason they couldn’t last as long as their wired counterparts, which tin concluding decades with proper care and maintenance.
In demanding that manufacturers like Apple and others design true wireless headphones with longevity and repairability in mind, consumers tin can aid to limit long-term environmental harm inflicted by the tech manufacture’south long-standing love affair with obsolescence. As truthful wireless headphones get more pop, nosotros all have a duty to hold manufacturers to a higher standard.
And true wireless headphones are only one slice of the e-waste puzzle. E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, according a Un study, with just 20 percent of e-waste material being properly recycled as of 2014.
The long-term solution to this trouble may be legislative, with advocates like Gordon-Byrne pushing officials to write laws that would prevent manufacturers from selling electronics in the United states without clear end-of-life plans and repairability. Until and so, unfortunately, information technology’south on all of usa to try to make smarter purchasing decisions.
Change tin get-go every bit minor as a new pair of earbuds.
If there isn’t a teardown or iFixit rating for the pair of truthful wireless headphones you’re thinking of buying, look for obvious seams, screws, or other non-glued segments of the headphone casings that indicate they can come apart for battery replacement admission, or achieve out to the manufacturer direct to learn more about their repairability.
When doing inquiry for any new production, check out websites like iFixit for repairability scores, and consider donating or passing down used — simply notwithstanding functional — electronics to organizations like Free Geek, which repurpose them for those in need.
As for that aging pair of AirPods? Dispose of them properly through Apple. And for your next purchase, consider ownership something that isn’t as overtly disposable. For at present, that’s the all-time any of us can do.
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