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Business

Here’s why your gadgets die so quickly.




(Daniel Diosdado for The Washington Post)

Our analysis of 14 popular consumer devices found that most could stop working in 3 to 4 years due to irreplaceable batteries. This is how we get the technology industry to design products that last longer – and that do less damage to the environment.

Comment

If you have a pair of Apple AirPods, they’re going to die — probably sooner rather than later.

With mine, the battery lasted just over two years. And when it could no longer hold a charge, I had to throw it out and buy new AirPods, because the empty battery is glued inside.

Is that just how technology works? No, it’s just how tech companies make more money off of you.

We users want electronics that are easy to use, beautiful – and that also last a long time. So in my search for ways to make technology work better for us, I tried to figure out when 14 of my devices are going to die. Most of them, I discovered, could disappear within three to four years. And half of them are designed to be thrown away. You can see all the details in my gadget graveyard.

Having to keep buying upgrades and replacements is annoying and it’s bad for our budgets. Even worse, it is a hidden contributor to our environmental crisis. But I have some ideas about how we can change that by forcing the tech industry to come clean.

Here’s a dirty little secret of the tech industry: “Almost every device these days has a battery that’s going to die, and there’s a built-in death knell,” says Kyle Wiens, CEO of repair community iFixit. Today, there are batteries in everything from the toothbrush to the vacuum cleaner. They are consumer products, like printer ink or tires.

But buying equipment with batteries sealed inside is kind of like buying a car where you can’t change the tire. We just don’t realize that we do it, or how it contributes to our climate and sustainability crises.

Gadgets don’t use as much energy as airplanes and cars, but the damage they cause comes from their production and disposal. Making new devices requires mining raw materials such as cobalt, often at great human cost. Disposing of old gadgets is costly and fuels a rash of dangerous battery fires in trucks and recycling centers.

And according to Apple, of all the carbon emissions its products add to the earth during their lifetime, 70 percent comes from manufacturing alone. That means every time you buy a new gadget like a laptop, you’re adding hundreds more pounds of carbon to the sky before you even turn it on.

We users want electronics that are easy to use, beautiful – and that also last a long time.

But even if you wanted to buy long-lasting devices, it’s often impossible to tell when a product’s battery might die. Of course, devices fail for many reasons, but dead batteries are the death knell built in.

That’s why I spent six weeks pushing some of the world’s biggest companies to find these basic facts about some of our favorite gadgets:

  • First, how many charges – or “cycles” – can the product’s battery last before its capacity drops to 80 percent? “After that, they are defined as dead,” because the capacity starts to drop sharply, explains Bas Flipsen, lecturer in industrial design at Delft University of Technology.
  • Second, when that inevitable day comes, what—if anything—can a consumer do to replace the battery?

Nearly half of the companies I contacted—including Sony, Dyson, Logitech, Google-owned Fitbit, Amazon, Therabody, and Samsung-owned JBL—refused to answer or simply ignored my questions.

None of this should be secret.

Any portable gadget with a battery will eventually stop working. Post columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler says device makers should be up front with consumers. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Is this “planned obsolescence”?

How did we end up with disposable gadgets? Let’s go back 20 years to the iPod.

Apple’s pocket music player shook the world by putting a thousand songs in our pockets. But it was built differently from other mobile devices of the time: it had a rechargeable battery sealed inside.

After as few as 18 months, owners began to notice that their iPods could no longer hold much charge — and the hassle of replacing the battery prevented most from trying. iPods were so sought after that many of us have just bought a new one. I still have a dead one in a drawer.

It inspired one of the great acts of guerilla gadget activism: Casey Neistat, now a famous YouTuber, was so frustrated by dead iPod batteries that he made a video of himself painting a warning label on Apple’s ubiquitous billboards about the iPod’s death knell.

Still, Apple continued to make devices with rechargeable batteries sealed inside, including the most influential product of all, the iPhone. And whatever Apple does, other companies follow suit.

“We’re part of the problem, because when we buy a product with a short lifespan, we’re sending a signal to the manufacturers that it’s okay to make products with a short lifespan,” says iFixit’s Wiens.

How much of this is a grand scheme to keep us spending money? There’s a term for it: planned obsolescence.

I haven’t seen much evidence of smoky rooms where tech executives hatch ways to make products fail. But disposable electronics are a product of planning. Marketers have had tremendous success luring us with products that are ultra-thin or waterproof, both of which are easier to do with glued or soldered batteries. “This is the most simple, fast and economical solution,” says Flipsen, the engineer.

But other designs are possible, he says. For example, GoPro’s adorable action cameras have user-removable batteries – and you can take the cameras with you for a swim. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds contain batteries that are relatively easy to insert and remove. A company called Framework makes a great laptop with modular, upgradeable parts that still weighs about the same as a MacBook Air.

Apple has cleaned up its act in some ways. While the batteries on iPhones are still sealed inside, today you can get Apple to replace one for $69. Apple laptops, which also have sealed but usable batteries, even offer a very useful way to see how many charge cycles you’ve burned through. (Go to About This Mac > System Report > Power and you’ll see a cycle counter. Most Macs are built for 1000.)

But the $179 AirPods, Apple’s most successful new product in years, show that longevity is still not a major concern. If you show up at an Apple Store with dead AirPods batteries, they’ll just sell you new ones. (Apple would not comment when I asked why.)

Unfortunately, I found that many other devices are also designed to become junk. The battery in my Philips Sonicare toothbrush can’t just be replaced – it’s attached so tightly inside that the manual says you have to take a hammer to it just to throw it away (because batteries can cause rubbish fires). “The battery is well-placed, in a water-resistant handle, to ensure safety, durability, longevity and robust performance,” says Philips.

Many manufacturers tout their recycling programs as a sign of their environmental commitment. For example, Amazon offers no battery replacement service for out-of-warranty Fire tablets, although it does offer customers a 20 percent discount on a new Fire tablet if they send in their old one.

But recycling is not the solution it may appear to be. Recyclers can only recover a small fraction of the critical raw material that goes into an old gadget. “You simply cannot melt down a truck full of old smartphones to make a truck full of new smartphones,” says Wiens.

Much of the industry is hooked on the idea that we will continue to upgrade. These companies have built their business models based on replacement rates that are faster than what consumers want, says Ugo Vallauri, co-director of the British Restart Project, which advocates for repairable electronics. “They are finding it very difficult to figure out a future where they can flourish while responding to the challenges that the planet and consumers present to them.”

The best thing for us and for the environment is that we keep our gadgets longer. For that to happen, we need information.

So let’s revive Neistat’s radical act of transparency and demand to know when gadgets are made to die. If companies don’t want to come clean on their own, let’s demand a label there on the shelf showing the number of battery charges and how much it costs to replace the battery. The Federal Trade Commission already has the power to require different labels on products – why not for batteries?

We could also take inspiration from France, which in 2021 began requiring certain product categories to include a repair score, ranked from 1 to 10. You can’t miss it when shopping. And there are already signs that it’s causing companies to change how they design their products – because they now have to compete on longevity as much as price and other features.

In the US, we are poised to soon have laws giving consumers the right to repair products. That would mean that even if a battery is sealed inside a product, the manufacturer must sell replacements and share instructions on how to repair it.

Still, some environmental activists argue that we cannot leave it to technology companies to make design decisions that are critical to the planet. Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, senior policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau, a network of environmental organisations, is part of a group trying to get European lawmakers to ban non-replaceable batteries. “End users and independent operators should be able to replace batteries with commonly available tools,” he says.

According to Schweitzer’s organization, requiring only smartphones and tablets to have user-replaceable batteries would save European consumers $20 billion and reduce the industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in 2030 alone.

Still, the devil is in the details: Should we ban glued-in batteries altogether — or some that require special tools to remove? Some in the technology industry have pushed back that it needs an exemption for products designed to work in “wet conditions”. But that excuse can be used on any mobile device.

We must also weigh our own responsibility for meeting the environmental crisis. As a professional gadget guy, I fully understand the appeal of upgrades.

But we need to push back against the marketing machine that makes an annual cycle of product updates feel like anything but crass consumerism. The reality is that upgrades often offer very few new features. A classic narrative is in the slogan “best iPhone ever.” Did anyone expect it to be worse than last year’s model?

We need to change our relationship with technology. Not long ago, people used to assemble radios and computers at home, so they knew how they worked – and how to keep them running for a long time. Nowadays, opening a computer just to see what’s inside feels forbidden.

It is good that the technology is now more accessible. But if you can’t just replace the battery in something you own, does it really belong to you?



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