Two years ago, Desmond Hughes heard so many of his favorite podcasters extolling AirPods, Apple’s tiny, futuristic $170 wireless headphones, that he decided they were worth the splurge. He quickly became a convert.
Hughes is still listening to podcasters talk about their AirPods, but now they’re complaining. The battery can no longer hold a charge, they say, rendering them functionally useless. Apple bloggers agree: “AirPods are starting to show their age for early adopters,” Zac Hall, an editor at 9to5Mac, wrote in a post in January, detailing how he frequently hears a low-battery warning in his AirPods now. Earlier this month, Apple Insider tested a pair of AirPods purchased in 2016 against a pair from 2018, and found that the older pair died after two hours and 16 minutes. “That’s less than half the stated battery life for a new pair,” the writer William Gallagher concluded.
Hughes, who is 35 and lives in Newport News, Virginia, has noticed a similar thing about his own set: At first, their charge lasted five hours, but now they sometimes last only half an hour. He frequently listens to one while charging the other—not optimal conditions for expensive headphones. He’s now gearing up to plunk down more money on another pair. “I just wish they would increase the battery life,” he told me. (On Wednesday, Apple announced it would soon release a new generation of AirPods, but did not say whether the devices would have longer lives.)
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.