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Lifespan of tech products is bad for consumers, ‘a huge problem’ for the environment: Expert

Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler joins Yahoo Finance Live to talk about how long tech devices and their lithium batteries last, how they’re designed to eventually die, and the environmental impact of tech waste.

Video transcript

Have you ever seen the batteries in one of your favorite devices start to die, only to realize that you can’t actually swap out that battery. Well, it’s actually by design. And that effectively means that many gadgets have, as the “Washington Post” says, a date of death. Now, “Washington Post” tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler has analyzed the lifespan of AirPods and found that they’re designed to die about two years after you get them. So, Jeff, I mean, when you think about the price tags of some of these things, tell us about your research and why these gadgets are dying so fast.

GEOFFREY FOWLER: Yeah. I wanted to know when all these devices I own would eventually die because this happened to me with my AirPods. I bought them. After about two years, I started hearing this do-do-do-do-do sound in them, which meant they couldn’t hold the drums for more than 5-10 minutes at a time. But I took them to Apple and said, hey, can you replace them? Can you replace the battery on these? And they said no.

And it turns out AirPods aren’t alone in this. Many of the devices we own today have a dirty little secret. They all contain rechargeable lithium batteries. And lithium batteries are a commodity that will wear out over time. They are a bit like the tires of our cars or the printer ink that we have. And these products, of course, you can get new tires. You can get new printer ink. But in many of our gadgets you can’t put new batteries.

Jeff, I’m still playing on a 20 year old Nintendo Wii that works like it’s brand new. Is this a new practice of these companies or is it just new drum material and therefore unavoidable?

GEOFFREY FOWLER: I think it started with this guy. Do you remember him, the classic iPod? It was one of the first mobile devices if you remember back in the early 2000s. There were other mobile devices. But it’s one of the first to have a battery sealed inside. You couldn’t get in there. And remember how frustrated people were that after maybe a year and a half that thing was dead and you had to buy a new one?

Well, unfortunately, we all went to buy new ones. I still have mine. It has remained in a drawer ever since. And Apple and the rest of the consumer electronics industry learned the wrong lesson. They said, aha, it’s a way to entice consumers to keep buying new devices. And so more and more of them started designing devices, again, that we want mobile, so they need lithium batteries, but sell them indoors in the hope that when the batteries will necessarily die after a few years, we’ll just throw them away and buy a new one.

I think it’s bad for us as consumers. It’s expensive. It’s boring. But it is also a huge problem for the environment. I mean, we don’t talk enough about the kind of challenges we produce for the carbon that we put in the air every time a new device is made for the sustainability of extracting all the materials it takes make one of these devices.

Yes Geoff. I know New York is trying to pass the Right to Repair Act. But what else can we do? How do we get the tech industry to change its ways and give us, I guess, a little more protection when it comes to these devices which are very expensive in many cases?

GEOFFREY FOWLER: Amen. So I think it starts with naming and humiliating. And that’s what I try to do as a consumer advocate at The Washington Post. That’s why I published a list of death dates. I asked 14 device manufacturers to tell me what their device’s battery cycle count is called. It was planned from the start. And it’s a bit like the date of death that turns inside. Many of these companies would not give out this number even when asked by the “Washington Post”. Maybe we need FTC rules or laws.

Or perhaps we could look to France as a model. In fact, for about a year there’s been a rule that every time you sell a device, like the French equivalent of a Best Buy, there has to be a little tag right next to it that has a score of 0 to 10 which says how fixable this thing is. I think that’s a great idea. This may be the next place we will go to in the United States. Another idea, maybe we just need laws that say you can’t design a product with a battery that can’t be replaced or maintained. And they are considering this in Europe as well.

So Geoff, price-wise, which device is most likely to end up in the gadget graveyard? And what can we do as consumers to try to extend the life of some of our products until some of these laws are in place?

GEOFFREY FOWLER: Yeah. It’s a whole range of things. I mean, so everything from AirPods — which are $170 to $180, they have tiny batteries in them, and they’re totally glued inside so you can’t take them out — to a Tesla. I have a model Y. And I was just trying to figure out in this project, my God, how long is it going to last? And this thing will probably only last 15 years. And then after that, oh my God. It’s going to cost me over $20,000 to replace the battery. So what can we do?

Well, how you load your products has an impact. So that means you have to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when it says not to necessarily go all the way down to 0 and back to 100. Laptops are actually getting a lot smarter about this. So that’s a good thing. But I think the real thing we need to do is just tell these tech companies that we demand to know this information up front so they can start competing for who can make products that last the Longer.

Death by date. I like this development. Finally, I want to ask about the hugely popular Nintendo Switch. How long does it last?

GEOFFREY FOWLER: Well, Nintendo admitted to me that it can take 800 charge cycles, which is a bit less than a laptop like a MacBook. But here’s the thing. If you charge this thing pretty much every day, you could burn them out in three or four years.

Geoff Fowler of the Washington Post. Great news that you can use. We appreciate it, sir. Thanks.