California’s new Right to Repair Act can’t magically make Apple’s popular earbuds good for the environment.
On September 12, California’s State Assembly approved the Right to Repair Act. Once it’s signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, makers of consumer electronics will be required to provide independent shops in the state with tools, spare parts, and manuals needed to fix the gadgets that they sell.
Advocates of Right to Repair, which included dozens of repair stores across the state, local officials, and environmental groups, hailed the move as a victory, the culmination of a years-long battle to force tech companies to allow regular people to easily repair their own devices. Even Apple, which had opposed the legislation for years, had a change of heart and officially supported Right to Repair in California at the end of August. The world’s richest maker of consumer electronics would finally be forced to make repair materials available for every shiny phone, tablet, laptop, and smartwatch it sells.
But some activists had a question: What does this mean for AirPods?
“If products have batteries, they should be easy to swap or easy to remove so that consumers and recyclers can separate them,” said Kyle Wiens, the CEO of product repair blog and parts retailer iFixit. “You just don’t see that with AirPod design.”
For years, Apple has made its commitment to the environment part of its powerful marketing machine. It has shown off robots capable of disassembling over a million iPhones in a year, and increasingly uses recycled materials to build most of its flagship devices. It claims that its spaceship-like Cupertino headquarters, whose gigantic circular roof is covered with hundreds of solar panels, is powered by renewable energy, and is spending millions to save mangroves and savannas in India and Kenya. At its September 12 event, where it launched a $1,200 titanium phone and a watch that isn’t too different from last year’s model beyond a brand-new “carbon neutral” logo on its plastic-free packaging, Apple reiterated its plans to go entirely carbon neutral by 2030 in a deeply polarizing skit starring Octavia Spencer as “Mother Nature.”
Every single sleek earbud is a dense bundle of rare earth metals glued together in a hard plastic shell. Each one also contains a tiny lithium-ion battery that degrades over time like all batteries do, which means that eventually, all AirPods stop holding enough charge to be usable, sometimes in as little as 18 months.
That’s where the problem lies: Unlike iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches, and MacBooks, which can be opened up and have failing batteries swapped relatively easily, AirPods aren’t really designed up be cracked apart by you, repair shops, or recycling companies without destroying their shells in the process, or shedding blood trying to cut them open.
“It’s in the ‘insanely difficult’ category,” Wiens told Vox, “which is why you don’t have too many repair shops in the US trying to do this.”
This lack of repairability of AirPods raises an important issue: What does the Right to Repair law mean for a product that isn’t designed to be repaired?
“AirPods are too difficult to fix — that is clear,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director at CALPIRG, a California consumer rights nonprofit that has been pushing the state to implement Right to Repair legislation for years. “Right to Repair reforms ensure that you can’t make repairs proprietary. But for some devices, the design gets in the way even if you can access parts and manuals. We believe Right to Repair sets a basic expectation that a product should be fixable. But yeah, we can only repair what is repairable.”
Apple did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In 2022, Apple launched its own Self Service Repair program. For a chunk of change and a whole lot of trouble, the company provides manuals, sells parts, and rents out official equipment to let people repair iPhones, Macs, and Apple displays. But when Right to Repair becomes law in California, the company will be required to provide it for all products it sells. The problem is that AirPods aren’t designed to be repaired at all.
“AirPods are an environmental catastrophe,” Wiens said. “They’re a product that I don’t think should exist in their current state. They’re almost impossible to recycle economically.”
Apple released AirPods in 2016, the same year it removed the headphone jack on iPhones, spawning an entire industry of truly wireless earbuds with tiny charging cases. At first, AirPods were the butt of jokes. Some people thought wearing a pair in public was a flex. The Guardian said that AirPods were “like a tampon without a string.” Then, they were everywhere.
As a feat of engineering, AirPods are, indeed, impressive. Each one packs in a sophisticated processor, microphones, drivers, optical sensors, and a motion accelerometer to detect when it’s in or out of your ear in a space less than 2 inches long. All these tiny components are jammed together and sealed inside sleek plastic casing designed to look smooth and seamless, making AirPods damn near impossible to open.
But a key reason that makes AirPods disposable is what powers them. Thanks to chemical reactions that take place when you charge and discharge them, the lithium-ion batteries that power AirPods and other modern electronics hold less and less charge over time. The ones in AirPods are also tiny, which means that while a new one might run for up to six hours on a single charge when new, they might last for less than 60 minutes after a couple of years of heavy use.
Apple didn’t provide a way to recycle a pair of AirPods when they were first released. Eventually, the company let people swap out a dying AirPod for a new one — for $49 a piece — if they were out of warranty, and then sent the old AirPods to one of the handful of recyclers it partners with. Apple also lets you mail in a pair of AirPods to recycle responsibly instead of tossing them into the trash.
In 2019, however, after a viral, 4,000-word Vice essay called the wireless earbuds a “tragedy,” the notoriously secretive Apple pulled back the curtain on the AirPods recycling process. Wistron GreenTech, a Texas-based subsidiary of Taiwanese manufacturing giant Wistron that Apple hired to recycle AirPods, later told tech publication OneZero that AirPods couldn’t be opened by any kind of automated system. Instead, each device had to be manually pried apart by a worker with pliers and jigs. And because it cost more to open up a pair of AirPods than the value of the material extracted from it, Apple paid Wistron — and, presumably, its other recycling partners — a fee to cover the difference.
“It is not easy to fully repair broken AirPods, but we are able to reuse components for other units,” Rob Greening, a spokesperson for Decluttr, an online platform that lets people trade in old devices for cash or gift cards, told Vox.
When AirPods launched, iFixit gave them a repairability score of zero out of 10, noting that accessing any component was impossible without destroying the AirPods’ outer casing. At iFixit, Wiens said he bans employees from using AirPods at work. The company also has a workplace perk, he said, where it buys employees any headphones they want as long as they meet iFixit’s repairability criteria — which AirPods don’t.
Because Apple claims to “replace your AirPods battery for a service fee,” Wiens thinks that AirPods should be subject to California’s Right to Repair law, too. But because the earphones are not designed to be opened up, it’s unclear how.
“I’d sure like to see Apple’s recommended process for doing it,” Wiens said. “There is some possibility that Apple is smarter than everyone and has some secret way to do it, but we haven’t figured it out yet.”
AirPods are likely just a fraction of the 6.9 million tons of e-waste that the US generates each year. But they are symbolic of the larger environmental problems that products of their category cause.
In a 2022 paper called “AirPods and the Earth,” Sy Taffel, a lecturer at New Zealand’s Massey University whose research focuses on digital technology and the environment, argued that any right to repair legislation should prohibit the production of irreparable digital devices such as AirPods, as the right to repair an irreparable device is effectively meaningless.
“You can’t pop in a new battery in an old AirPod the same way you can pop in a new battery into an old iPhone,” Taffel told Vox. “So even getting a replacement from Apple doesn’t really ameliorate any of the environmental harms these things cause. It just means that as a consumer, you end up paying a bit less money than if you were going to buy a completely new set.”
Earlier this year, the European Parliament approved new rules that mandate consumer devices such as smartphones, tablets, and cameras to have batteries that users must be able to remove and replace easily. Taffel said that he would like lawmakers to lay down similar rules for wireless earphones including AirPods.
“There’s a reason the sustainability mantra is repair, reuse, reduce, recycle,” he said. “Recycling always comes last because recycling stuff takes a lot of energy. It’s not always feasible.”
Just over a decade ago, the primary battery-powered devices most people had were smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Today, we have smart watches, wireless headphones, smart speakers, e-readers, and VR headsets. Next year, Apple will release its own pair of high-end VR glasses called the Vision Pro.
“The market capitalization of tech companies is partly based on the idea that they will continue to create new categories of digital devices that will be considered popular and will be widely sold,” Taffel said.
Unlike a pair of wired headphones that you could potentially use for decades, the pair of AirPods you buy today will run out of steam sometime in the next couple of years. At that rate, you will have bought half a dozen pairs of AirPods, tossing your old ones in the drawer, or in the trash. Or maybe you’ll have sent them in for recycling, forcing recycling companies to expend even more energy in the process.
“From an environmental perspective, we need to be doing less and less and less,” Taffel said. “But tech’s model is one of constant growth. There’s always more and more and more. Both these things are completely incompatible.”
All of this is the opposite of Apple’s increased emphasis on being environmentally responsible. Hanging on to your existing devices for as long as possible is one of the most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint. But it’s also bad for Apple’s bottom line. Already, the company’s latest iPhones, which went on sale today, are backordered.
In Apple’s controversial skit, CEO Tim Cook promises “Mother Nature” that all Apple devices will have “a net zero climate impact” by 2030.
“All of them?” she asks.
“All of them,” Cook says.
The two stare at each other for a long moment. And when the tension reaches a crescendo, Mother Nature breaks it with a cheerful “Okay! Good! See you next year.”
Not once does anyone mention AirPods.