This is 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 within 3 to 4 years due to irreplaceable batteries. Here’s how we’re leading the tech industry to design products that last longer – and do less damage to the environment.

Remark

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

On mine, the battery lasted a little over two years. And when it couldn’t hold a charge anymore, I had to throw it out and buy new AirPods because the dead battery is glued in.

Is that just how technology works? No, that’s just how technology companies earn more from you.

We, the users, want electronics that are easy to use and beautiful – and 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 would die. Most of them, I found, could disappear within three to four years. And half of it is designed to just be thrown away. You can see all the details in my gadget graveyard.

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

Here’s a little dirty secret from the tech industry: “Almost every device these days has a battery that will wear out, and it’s a built-in death knell,” said Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit repair community. These days there are batteries in everything from your toothbrush to your vacuum cleaner. They are consumables, such as printer ink or tires.

But buying gear with batteries in it is like buying a car whose tires you can’t change. We just don’t realize we’re doing it, or how it’s contributing to our climate and sustainability crises.

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

And according to Apple, 70 percent of all the carbon emissions its products add to the Earth over their lifetimes come from manufacturing alone. That means every time you buy a new gadget like a laptop, you’re throwing hundreds of pounds more carbon into the air before you even turn it on.

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

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

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 take before its capacity drops to 80 percent? “After that, they are defined as dead”, because the capacity starts to decrease rapidly, explains Bas Flipsen, lecturer in industrial design at TU Delft.
  • Second, when that inevitable day comes, what can a consumer do to replace their battery?

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

None of this should be a secret.

Any portable gadget with a battery will eventually stop working. Post columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler says device manufacturers need to lead the way with consumers. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Is this ‘planned obsolescence’?

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

Apple’s pocket music player has turned the world upside down 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 just 18 months, owners began to notice that their iPods could no longer hold much charge — and the hassle of replacing the battery kept most people from trying. iPods were so popular that many of us just bought a new one. I still have a dead one in a drawer.

It inspired one of the great acts of guerrilla gadget activism: Casey Neistat, now a renowned 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 death knell of the United States. iPod.

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.

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

To what extent is this a grand scheme to keep us spending money? There’s a term for that: planned obsolescence.

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

But other designs are also possible, he says. GoPro’s cute action cameras, for example, have user-removable batteries — and you can take the cameras for a swim. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds contain batteries that are relatively easy to fold and unfold. A company called Framework makes a great laptop with modular, expandable parts that still weigh 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’s laptops, which also have sealed but serviceable batteries, even offer a very handy way to see how many charge cycles you have. used up. (Go to About This Mac > System Report > Energy and you’ll see a Cycle Count number. Most Macs are built for 1,000.)

But the $179 AirPods, Apple’s most successful new product in years, show that longevity is still not the biggest issue. If you show up at an Apple Store with dead AirPod batteries, they’ll only sell you new ones. (Apple declined to comment when I asked why.)

Unfortunately, I discovered that many other devices are also designed to become garbage. Not only is the battery in my Philips Sonicare toothbrush not replaceable — it’s so tight that the manual says you have to hit it with a hammer to throw it away (because batteries can cause garbage fires). “The battery is securely housed 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 commitments. For example, Amazon doesn’t offer a battery replacement service for out-of-warranty Fire tablets, but it does offer customers a 20 percent discount on a new Fire tablet when they send in their old ones.

But recycling is not the solution it seems. Recyclers can only recover a small fraction of the critical resource that goes into an old gadget. “You just can’t melt down a truckload of old smartphones and turn it into a truckload of new smartphones,” Wiens says.

Much of the industry is hooked on the idea that we will keep upgrading. These companies have built their business models based on replacement rates that are faster than what consumers want,” said Ugo Vallauri, co-director of the UK-based Restart Project, which advocates for repairable electronics. “They find it very difficult to envision a future where they can thrive while also responding to the challenges the planet and consumers pose to them.”

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

So let’s reinvigorate Neistat’s radical act of transparency and the requirement to know when gadgets are designed to die. If companies can’t figure it out on their own, let’s demand a label on the shelf that says how long the battery needs to be charged 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 were also able to draw inspiration from France, which in 2021 began requiring some product categories to have a repairability rating of 1 to 10. You can’t miss it when you are shopping. And there are already signs that companies need to change the way they design their products – because they now have to compete on longevity as much as on price and other features.

In the United States, we are about to pass laws soon that give consumers the right to repair products. It would mean that even if a battery is sealed in a product, the maker must sell replacements and share instructions on how to fix it.

Still, some environmentalists argue that we cannot leave it to tech 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 organizations, is part of a group trying to get European lawmakers to ban batteries that cannot be replaced. “End users and independent operators should be able to replace batteries with commonly available tools,” he says.

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

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

We also need to weigh up our own responsibilities in tackling the environmental crisis. As a professional gadget guy, I fully understand the appeal of upgrades.

But we must resist the marketing machine that makes an annual cycle of product updates feel like anything other than crude consumerism. The reality is that upgrades often offer very few new features. A classic tell is in the tagline ‘best iPhone ever’. Did anyone expect it to be worse than last year’s model?

We need to change our relationship with technology. Not so long ago, people were assembling radios and computers at home, so they knew how they work — and how to keep them going for a long time. These days it feels forbidden to crack open a computer to see what’s inside.

It’s a good thing technology is now more accessible. But if you can’t just replace the battery in something you own, is it really yours?

Leave a Comment