E-Waste: The Unglamorous Side of AirPods

AirPods are not easily recycled and they highlight the growing issue that electronics are becoming more difficult to recycle.  This exacerbates the issue of e-waste and recycling as a whole.

Photo via Rwanda Green Fund Flickr

AirPods—You can’t walk through the hallways of Franklin High School without seeing at least a couple of pairs of AirPods dangling from the ears of teenagers. AirPods don’t try to look incognito. Instead, their visually distinct long white shape is instantly recognizable in any setting.

AirPods haven’t received the best reviews due to their mediocre sound quality and their ability to get lost easily. However, that isn’t why people buy them. They are convenient for iPhone users due to their connectability and added functionalities, but more importantly, they’ve become a status of wealth and class.

Whether you’re attempting to show off or just trying to fit in, AirPods have also become a symbol of disposable wealth. When they get lost or broken some people just buy a new pair.

On the surface, it seems like a pretty harmless thing, but there’s a problem with AirPods. “Apple AirPods are all but impossible to recycle, which makes them a Herculean environmental challenge,” wrote Kyle Wiens in a Wired op-ed. Wiens is the CEO and co-founder of iFixIt, a company dedicated to helping people learn to fix their own electronics. “[Recyling airpods] is easier said than done, because Apple glues AirPods together. We tried heating them. Prying them. Even cutting them, which bloodied one of our engineers,” explains Weins.

Apple has a reputation for making their products hard to repair. Most notably they use legal action against iPhone repair shops to prevent them from working on their products. However, making products harder to recycle is not entirely Apple’s fault, as electronics are becoming smaller and more compact.

FreeGeek is a Portland-based non-profit that takes in used computers and either recycles or refurbishes them to make them available for the community. Ike Westlind, a Franklin High School senior and former FreeGeek volunteer, said, “If [they] don’t get recycled, electronics will often end up in a landfill which is kinda problematic because lithium-ion batteries have a tendency to explode if damaged.”

Lithium-ion batteries that have gone into a landfill have a high chance of violently exploding and causing fires. “Even when we do recycle electronics, the process of making them usable again is expensive and it’s not easy. There’s just so many other metals in our devices,” said Westlind.
There’s a much darker side to e-waste. Because the US is the largest exporter of electronic waste, a large amount of it ends up being shipped overseas to poorer nations. In Guiyu, China, entire villages are dedicated to dismantling e-waste and separating it into its components to be sent to facilities to be chemically refined. The entire process of dismantling exposes workers to harmful levels of fumes and toxic chemicals inside the waste.

Both national and local Chinese governments have been establishing policies to reduce the amount of pollution going into the environment. Prior to the newer regulations, acidic waste was dumped into a river near Guiyu that children played in.

Westlind said that while recycling practices are improving in Guiyu, other places face similar challenges. “Our federal and state governments aren’t really doing enough to keep a lot of [e-waste] from being sent to poorer countries,” he explained. “The federal government needs to just adopt policies to prevent this from happening.”

What concerns Westlind the most about e-waste from electronics like AirPods is that people are completely unaware of the issue. “I wish people knew the effects of e-waste on the environment like they do about greenhouse gases,” he expressed. “The way things are going right now, I don’t know if things will change but I hope that they do.”

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