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.”
Read: Is this the end of recycling?
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.