What Really Happens to AirPods When They Die
Apple finally opens up about their complicated afterlife
AirPod owners love them. Everyone else, it can seem, hates them. Apple is, by all indications, selling oodles of them. But what happens to AirPods when they get old and die? Does the same seamless design that helped to make them iconic also make them an environmental abomination?
It’s a question a growing number of critics are asking as the Bluetooth buds nestle their way into ever more ears. Based on my conversations with e-waste recyclers, repairability experts, and Apple itself, however, the answer is neither as straightforward as you might hope nor quite as grim as you might fear.
Three years after their debut, a generation of AirPods is nearing obsolescence as their lithium-ion batteries degrade (or they get lost or dropped down the toilet) and owners upgrade to the new model, which came out in March. At the same time, a new wave of customers who initially eschewed the $159 ear-sticks is considering whether they might just be the sort of people who would wear them after all. While Apple doesn’t report sales figures for AirPods alone, the buds and the Apple Watch are part of a category that boomed to $5.1 billion in sales in the first three months of 2019 alone. Market research suggests that AirPods are by far the world’s best-selling wireless earbuds.
It makes sense that critics are scrutinizing AirPods anew, examining not just their features and performance but their entire life cycle — and not just their value to the people who buy them but their impact on the rest of us. While some gadget reviewers have continued to praise the devices for their clever design and ease of use, the April review in the New York Times of the newest generation was double-edged: “perfect earbuds, but they don’t last.”
Other outlets skipped straight to the downsides. Repair guide site iFixit called AirPods “disappointingly disposable” and gave them a repairability score of zero out of 10. And then there was Vice, which excoriated AirPods as “future fossils of capitalism” in a 4,000-word manifesto that took the devices to task for everything from their brief lifespan to their social-class semiotics — but most of all their environmental impact. The headline was a hammer…