As electronics take over every part of our lives, the need for easy-to-recycle gadgets becomes more important. If an electronic device is too difficult to recycle, odds are it won’t be. It’s the responsibility of manufacturers to make this a priority. And if you’re a brand leader like Apple, it is incumbent upon you to lead by example. But are they? I’ve been an Apple fan from the beginning, but I’m beginning to wonder: Has Apple gone rotten?
Don’t get me wrong, Apple has some wonderful environmental initiatives, like its goal to use only 100 percent renewable energy. In 2015, the company was well on its way with 93 percent of energy coming from renewable sources. But its newest product, AirPods wireless headphones, is already getting bad press for its nonrecyclability.
Why should we care if AirPods are recyclable?
Electronic waste, or e-waste, is the fastest-growing solid waste stream, with between 20 and 50 million metric tons of electronic devices being disposed of worldwide each year, according to Electronics Recyclers International (ERI). ERI also reminds us that “with just 12.5 percent of e-waste being recycled, the possibility for environmental harm and data security risks are amplified.”
Many electronics contain harmful materials, including lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, other heavy metals and chemical flame retardants. When e-waste is not able to be recycled or is improperly disposed of, these materials can pollute our soil and water. This can negatively impact the environment and harm human health.
Electronics also contain reusable materials like glass and plastics. When these materials are recycled and reused, it reduces the need for virgin materials to be used.
How electronics are recycled
First, the recycler establishes if the electronic device can be reused. If it can, it’s refurbished, data is deleted and it’s sold or donated.
If it can’t be reused, it is taken apart. This is where it becomes important for the design to allow for easy disassembly and battery removal. This is essential for a number of reasons. One, the recycler won’t waste time on the device if it isn’t easy to recycle. Cost-effectiveness is a big factor here. Two, it becomes a health hazard for the person trying to dismantle the device if it’s not easy or safe.
The issue with the AirPods
The folks at iFixit, the wiki-based website that offers free repair manuals for mainly electronic products, claim “there is no practical way of opening a pair of AirPods.” And they tried everything. Given that these wireless earbuds are the next essential if you have the newest iPhone (the iPhone 7 doesn’t have a headphone jack), this is a real concern — they’re likely to be everywhere soon.
To make it an even bigger concern, the AirPods contain not one but three lithium-ion batteries: one battery in each pod and one in the product’s charging case.
Headphones are typically shredded and then melted down, but that doesn’t work because of the glued-down lithium-ion batteries, which could catch on fire during the recycling process. (Fire risk at any stage of owning or recycling is never a good thing with electronics, as we saw in the case of Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7.)
Apple has said that consumers can return the AirPods to them for recycling but hasn’t yet commented on how they will be recycled.