Your Airpods are something you don’t think about very much. These small, compact devices beam music through the air without wires, their tiny techno indicator lights blinking like a friendly and inviting electronic greeting. You don’t need to know how this all works to enjoy it. You don’t need to know what’s inside to know that this product will add to your quality of life.
Apple would be all-too-pleased if you never cracked one open, because inside of each earbud is a tiny bomb. The threat of explosion is real, though it is far more likely to happen after it’s thrown into the trash than it is to blow shrapnel into your ear canal.
The same ingenious engineering that made an AirPod so easy to use also intentionally made it impossible to repair. Like disposable razors, they are designed to fail, and fail relatively quickly, meaning millions of the $170 product are being thrown out every 18 months or so when the rechargeable batteries start to fail. Once in a landfill, they will outlast everyone you know, everyone alive today and most of the things around you. And that’s the best case scenario. It assumes that the lithium battery which has been designed to destroy the product if it was removed doesn’t explode first.
What happens with a dead phone or AirPod? The vast majority are thrown away, seeding landfills with tiny explosive bombs.
Our planet is littered with this type of “e-waste”: disposable electronic products that are incredibly toxic to create and difficult to get rid of, and with components that will continue to harm the environment long after they’re thrown away.
What they’re made of is only part of the problem. The bigger issue is we’re throwing away millions of AirPods and other tiny bombs just like them.
Our music scene lives in the same world with everyone else and this problem is ours too. Even though DJs and producers didn’t create this catastrophe and play a relatively small part in perpetuating it, music itself has played an important role. It’s a problem bigger, more insidious and more universal than the toxicity of many processes of vinyl manufacturing, or even the air miles gobbled up by superstar DJs and the locals that book them.
Those are, of course, problems. But right now nearly every single one of us is holding an object — one of them is possibly in your hands right now — that will steal a little bit of time from and erase a tiny part of a habitable Earth.
Apple’s AirPods are among the most destructive mass consumer items produced in the world today other than guns and oxycontin.
There are multiple reasons to buy a phone, but music ranks very high on the list. For almost 20 years, digital music has been a lure for tech manufacturers to sell mobile devices, beginning with the iPod and early mp3 players to the iPhone and Android devices that followed. Music played a crucial role in spurring smartphone adoption from 35% of the American population in 2011 to 85% today.
Today, phones are the medium most people use for listening to music. Apple in particular earns astonishing profits from both subscriptions to Apple Music streaming and the iPhones they play on. Google similarly profits from YouTubeMusic streaming subscriptions, the Android mobile operating system that powers phones and, increasingly, the hardware itself.
In the last 10 years, these companies (and many others) have been driving their product release cycle into overdrive. In doing so, they are making deliberate engineering decisions to prod consumers away from maintaining their current devices to buying new ones at a staggering pace. Phones now are being made in such a way that they are cheap to make, easy to break and often impossible to repair. This is changing consumer behavior and creating a “disposability culture” for mobile devices which are increasingly being designed to fail.
How many are being thrown away? The Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) estimates a staggering 416,000 are tossed every day in the United States. We know that very little — only 15% to 20% — of all electronic waste is recycled. It’s a tremendous amount of garbage of the most lethal kind.
It isn’t just phones. Apple’s AirPods are among the most destructive mass consumer items produced in the world today other than guns and oxycontin. AirPod batteries degrade with each use; used properly, they will begin to lose their ability to hold a charge in a year or two. Apple secures the batteries inside each casing with glue, making them impossible to replace without destroying the product.
There is hidden a cost to so many cheap, disposable devices, but we’re not paying it. We’re deferring it, just like the tens of thousands of Superfund sites that dot the American landscape from the 20th century.
And it’s not just Apple that does this. Samsung also glued batteries into their Note7 devices. Unfortunately the batteries began to explode inside the devices. Since the battery couldn’t be removed, Samsung sent replacement devices to consumers. Those also exploded. “If Samsung could tell people to remove the battery, it probably would,” Kyle Wiens wrote in Wired. “But it can’t. Because of course it glued the battery down.”
Making the battery is a highly damaging process as well. Mining lithium requires massive amounts of water and processing it creates about three times the emissions generated by producing a similar quantity of steel, according to the International Energy Agency. About 9% of the world’s lithium resources are located in the United States, and locals are increasingly throwing up barriers to protect their local environment. Unlike many other toxic environmental procedures, this isn’t one the US can simply export and let the developing world deal with the consequences.
The recycling of lithium-ion batteries is also imperfect: at current prices, it costs more to recycle lithium than it does to mine the ore. The most common recycling process consists of high-temperature smelting similar to mining — the recycling process itself produces toxic byproducts as well. Because of the cost, many recyclers do not attempt to recover the lithium in batteries at all.
Few if any of Roland’s TR-808s have survived the last 42 years with all of their original capacitors and other electronic guts intact. Until just a few years ago, it was an expectation that a well-designed machine like would find multiple homes through resale markets and restoration via repair.
It stands to reason that we should be using the batteries produced at such cost as sparingly as possible, but that’s not what is happening. Since their corporate goal is to stimulate consumers to replace rather than retain, Apple makes their devices prohibitively expensive to repair by professionals.
Sometimes they make it impossible. Apple has copied a fairly insidious process from the agricultural machinery industry called “part pairing.” In part pairing, each component of a machine is serialized to prevent the device from working properly if an individual part is replaced. Fixing the cracked glass screen on a phone, for instance, is detected by the phone’s software, which in turn disables Face ID. Many common repairs are impossible except under Apple’s terms, which exist mainly to direct you through financial incentives toward buying a new phone.
What happens with a dead phone or AirPod? The vast majority are thrown away, seeding landfills with tiny explosive bombs. As Caroline Haskins noted in Vice, a product designed to function correctly for about 18 to 24 months before it dies will still outlast all memory of you. “When you die, your bones will decompose in less than a century, but the plastic shell of AirPods won’t decompose for at least a millennium.”
Globalization has made devices cheaper, but deliberate design decisions simultaneously pushed planned obsolescence faster than ever. Meanwhile global e-waste is surging — up 21% in just the last five years according to the UN.
There is a cost to all of this, and we’re not paying it. We’re deferring it. And while the problem is complex, there are a few relatively easy fixes, which start with curbing the drive for profit by some of the wealthiest corporations and people in the history of the world.
Regulation, and specifically Right to Repair legislation is crucial: it would not just extend the shelf life of many products, but lower the cost by creating a viable after-purchase market while punishing companies that conspire to make repair burdensome or even a violation of user agreements. The Right to Repair movement (there is in fact a movement!) has exploded like so many leaky batteries in the last few years, in parallel to manufacturers’ attempts to make everything you own as disposable as a paper towel.
Companies also must be compelled to support internet-capable devices for as long as possible. There’s usually no real technical imperative behind manufacturers’ declared “end of life” dates other than profit margin. It’s also a part of planned obsolescence: companies could easily push the code to deliver these updates, they just find it unprofitable to do so, and it’s counterproductive to their short-term profit margin to support old devices rather than stuff the consumer into the sales funnel to buy new ones. If your grandpa (or a school) is fine using a 10 year old phone to make calls and send emails, that kind of thrift should be encouraged rather than forbidden.
This attitude is quickly infecting other products and industries, including music gear. Few if any 808s have survived the last 42 years with all of their original capacitors and other electronic guts intact. Until just a few years ago, it was an expectation that a well-designed machine would find multiple homes through resale markets and restoration via repair. While sharp declines in hardware costs has been a real gift to music makers over the last decade, it seems unlikely that many of these cheap clones we’re buying are going to last even half as long as the 808 has. It’s worth discussing whether this “golden age” of cloned synths, drum machines and controllers is in any sense sustainable or will merely lead to more cheap plastic and exploding batteries in our landfills.
Finally, we need to put a lot more thought into what we buy and why. We’ve been down this road before, and history has shown that the damage isn’t just something as abstract as “the planet”. There were more than 40,000 Superfund clean-up sites in the United States as a result of massive industrial contamination in the 20th century; there may actually be one near you right now, with workers bouncing about in spacesuits reading levels of lead and thorium in the soil. Nowhere in the price of iPhones, earbuds or other electronics is the cost of clean-up we’ll be paying generations later; this deferred bill to clean up the toxic trash they’re manufacturing floats away in dividends, executive bonuses and Apple and Google’s enormous hoards of cash.
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