Apple’s new AirPods Pro seem like a major step forward in terms of audio quality and ease of use. The $250 wireless earbuds are Apple’s first with active noise cancellation, and their silicone tips come in three sizes for better comfort. They even have a new “transparency mode” that lets outside sound in while the earbuds are still on.
Still, neither the press release nor the product page for the AirPods Pro address one of the biggest issues with AirPods to date: Within a few years of regular use, some users have found that their earbuds no longer hold a charge. While Apple does offer “battery service” for AirPods, it’s pricey, at $49 for each earbud. Because they’re too delicate to repair, Apple still ends up recycling the ones that users bring in. It’s clear that while Apple focused on building new features like noise cancellation, the company hasn’t taken on improving the AirPods’ subpar sustainability.
AirPods’ limited life span
While it’s normal for lithium ion batteries to degrade over time, AirPods can lose significant charge capacity faster than a smartphone or tablet, presumably because of their size. AppleInsider’s William Gallagher reported in March that his AirPods (purchased in late 2016) were only lasting for two hours on a charge, which is less than half of Apple’s advertised five-hour run time. The Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler also wrote earlier this month that his AirPods no longer hold a charge, and How-To-Geek’s Craig Lloyd has documented many more battery life complaints on sites like Reddit.
With other Apple products, users can bring them to a repair shop or, if they’re brave, try to perform repairs on their own. With AirPods, however, accessing the battery inside requires slicing open the plastic stem that hangs from each earbud, making repairs practically impossible, as the repair site iFixit has noted. The only real option is to bring the AirPods to Apple.
The new AirPods Pro do have one improvement of sorts on this front: Battery service still costs $49 per earbud. That’s the same price Apple charges for the non-Pro version, even though a new pair of AirPods Pro are $90 more expensive. Still, Apple will not comment on whether its repair or recycling process has improved for the new version.
In the past, Apple has not disputed that AirPods are practically impossible to repair. Instead, it has defended its recycling practices, telling OneZero’s Will Oremus earlier this year that users can recycle their AirPods at an Apple Store or by mail with a prepaid shipping label. (Oremus found that Apple is eating some of the recycling costs, which outweigh the value of what recyclers get from the materials.)
This response largely misses the point, though. Recycling an old product and replacing it with a new one is still more destructive than keeping the existing product alive through repairs, and Apple knows this. As Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy, and social initiatives, said at the 2018 iPhone keynote, continuing to use your existing hardware is “the best thing for the planet.” With AirPods, that’s not an option.
Apple also suggested to Oremus that the AirPods’ repair issues are not unique, and that larger electronics are a bigger problem. That may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that Apple has created a new category of e-waste by pushing wireless earbuds into the mainstream. Until Apple started eliminating headphone jacks from its phones, there wasn’t much pressure to invent this product category, yet the company forged ahead without a workable repair solution in place.
It is possible to imagine a version of AirPods that are easier to repair. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds, for instance, use a type of battery that users can access with some basic prying tools and a screwdriver.
That’s not to say Apple should be copying Samsung’s design, but it does show that a more sustainable and repairable design is possible. It’s hard to believe that with more effort, Apple wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But with Apple selling tens of millions of AirPods per year, keeping them alive for longer just doesn’t seem to be a priority.