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Why batteries in modern gadgets aren't made to last


We all love our electronic devices and use them a lot, but we just kind of accept that eventually the batteries are going to wear out and that we're going to have to buy new versions. Is that just how technology works? Nope, that's how tech companies make more money from us. That's according to The Washington Post's tech columnist, Geoffrey Fowler. He's been researching the life spans of some of the most popular gadgets and asking, why do they seem to be designed to die? Geoffrey Fowler, welcome.

GEOFFREY FOWLER: Hello, hello.

ESTRIN: So give us an example of one of your favorite devices that you researched, and what did you learn about it?

FOWLER: Well, let's talk about one of the most successful Apple products of the last couple of years - the AirPods. So these things are super convenient. You pop them in your ears. There's no wires. But something kind of happens to them after about two years - or at least happened to mine. I started hearing that (vocalizing) sound, which means that the battery is no longer good. And, you know, soon enough, it can only really keep going for maybe five, 10 minutes before you hear that sound.

This happened to me. And so I went to the Apple store. And I said, hi, could you replace the batteries in these? And they said no. All they would do was sell me new AirPods and throw away the old ones. And the reason is the batteries inside those AirPods are glued inside. And it's like, why did they have to design these this way? But then I realized, aha, this is all part of the master plan - get us to buy a new pair.

ESTRIN: So is this a master plan by the tech companies to get us to keep buying things, or is it just that batteries are not physically made to last?

FOWLER: Lithium rechargeable batteries are going to die. The question is, what do you do about that fact upfront? When we buy products with rechargeable batteries sealed inside of them, it's like buying a car with tires that you can't change. Companies could design these products differently. They could - and used to, in many cases - design them to have a little hatch in the back that pops open. You take out the battery when it's dead, you put in a new one and you're good to go.

ESTRIN: Let me ask you, what does this matter if - you know, if technology keeps updating, every few years we want to buy the next and latest, greatest update of some device. I mean, isn't that just what technology is about?

FOWLER: Look, you're talking to the gadget guy for The Washington Post. Of course I love new gadgets. But the thing that we're not talking enough about is it's also an environmental disaster. So first of all, the materials that go into making these devices are rare. Some of them have to be mined in places like Africa - like cobalt - in ways that are really damaging to the people that have to do this mining. You know, gadgets like phones or even laptops don't use a lot of energy, you know, over their life. However, most of the energy that's consumed over their entire lifespan goes into simply making them - about 70%. So every time we buy a new thing, that means something new has to be made. And that's where the damage is being done.

ESTRIN: So you have some ideas for compelling companies to, you know, tell consumers up front how long their devices are actually going to last and some ideas for how to change this. What are your ideas?

FOWLER: You know, the FTC already is able to put regulations in place to require companies to do things like list where products are made - made in China, made in the U.S. Why not require them to say, what is the battery recharge count on this product? And also, what happens when the battery dies? Is there a service to get it replaced, and how much does that cost? That seems like information that should be known to every consumer upfront.

ESTRIN: Geoffrey Fowler, tech columnist at The Washington Post, thank you so much for joining me. Hope you don't have a gadget funeral anytime soon.

FOWLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.