Appleâ€™s sleek AirPods represent the companyâ€™s vision of a hands-free, wireless future. Sure, the sound is only fair to middling, but Apple made themÂ ridiculously convenient. And theyâ€™re here to stay, because Apple eliminated the headphone jack on the iPhone 7.
Thereâ€™s just one problem: Apple AirPods are all but impossible to recycle, which makes them a Herculean environmental challenge.
My company iFixit was among the first to get a pair. We tear stuff down, so instead of cueing up U2, we took themÂ apart. Easier said than done, because Apple glues AirPodsÂ together.Â We tried heating them. Prying them. Even cutting them, which bloodiedÂ one of our engineers. (Sorry, Scott). As I write this, anÂ engineer is using a Dremel to dismantleÂ the AirPod charging case. If he hits a battery, Iâ€™ll know it from the boom.
At this point, I am confident in saying there is no practical way of opening a pair of AirPods.
As a consumer, you probably donâ€™t care. WhenÂ your AirPods die, theyâ€™ll almost certainly have become cheap enough to replace. But you should care, because these things run on lithium-ion batteriesâ€”one in each pod, and a larger one in the case. If youâ€™ve ever owned anything with a rechargeable battery, you know most lithium-ion batteries have a usuable lifespan of just a few years. Eventually, your AirPods will stop working.
Like everything else Apple sells, AirPod packaging features the â€œdo not landfillâ€ icon of a crossed-out trash bin. Apple wants you to recycle your AirPods, but doesnâ€™t say how.
Recycling electronics is remarkably complex. Recyclers must dismantle gadgets andÂ manually remove the batteries before sending the devices to a shredder, which mechanically separates theÂ materials that can be melted down, recycled, or reused. Samsungâ€™s Note7 debacle made abundantly clear the risks of compromising or mishandling a lithium-ion battery. Now imagine oneÂ inadvertently loaded into a shredder full of flammable dust and e-kindling. Kablooey.
Apple is hardly alone in making its products difficult to break down.Â â€œManufacturers design electronics to be fast, and easy to use, and really thin,â€Â says John Shegerian, CEO of ERI, one of the biggest e-waste recyclers in the US. Â â€œThey arenâ€™t designed to be easy to recycle. Gluing products together, hiding the batteries awayâ€”that all makes recycling more difficult, less profitable, and more dangerous. Three things you donâ€™t want recycling to be.â€
When manufacturers make batteries impossible to remove, they also make those product impossible to safely and profitably recycle. In other words, they disincentivize recycling. Apple provides no guidance to recyclersÂ dealing with the millions of gadgets consumers discard each year, leaving themÂ to figure out how to open sealed cases, locate batteries, and break everything down without blowing anything up.
To be fair, Apple does offer a take-back program and built a robot to break down certain iPhones. The company says it will replace AirPod batteries for a fee, but I doubt youâ€™ll see Apple Geniuses doing that. Theyâ€™ll probably hand you a new pair of AirPods. And even though Liam, Appleâ€™s vaunted recycling robot, can disassemble an iPhone every 11 seconds, but it isnâ€™t being used in any production recycling centers. Even if it were, Apple almost certainly would need a different Liam for AirPods.
Still, Apple could dedicate a robot to the task and it wouldnâ€™t solve the problem, because the odds are most AirPods wonâ€™t end up back at Apple. AnyÂ that arenâ€™t tossed into a drawer and forgotten will be thrownÂ into the trash or dropped into a sorting bin at one of thousands of e-recyclers around the world.
Apple has sold more than 1.4 billion pairs of earbuds over the years, making those little white pods one of the most iconic, and ubiquitous, products ever. Thatâ€™s one set for every five people worldwide. And theyâ€™re relatively easy to recycle, because Apple used materials that are easily shredded and separated by machines. Recycling only works when manufacturers make it easy. By stepping further away from that idea, Apple sets a dangerous precedent because as goes Apple, so goes the industry. Battery-integrated wireless earbuds may well become an industry standard. That troubles recyclers. It should trouble you.
The irony is companies like Apple can createâ€”and have createdâ€”easily recycled products. Apple knows how to do this, as do companies like Samsung, but emphasizes design over practicality. If manufacturers want to continue placing design ahead of sustainability, they must at least publish comprehensive recycling procedures to ensure e-waste handlers can safely and efficiently deal with the refuse.
Until then, AirPods will remain a real pain for recyclers. And my engineers.