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Read: Is this the end of recycling? But, of course, companies design for performance and sales, not life span. Nadim Maluf, the founder of the battery consultancy Qnovo, told me that a decade ago, he went to big tech companies telling them he could help them double the longevity of their products, by extending the life of the lithium-ion batteries they were beginning to use.
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Apple officials declined to speak on the record for this story. But in , the company announced that it was working toward a closed-loop supply chain, in which percent of its materials will be recycled or renewed. But even consumers who hang on to their iPhones as long as possible learned in that Apple released a software update that slows down old phones to counteract aging lithium-ion battery problems.
If Apple were to make its products longer-lasting, it would likely sell fewer new products and post lower profits. Already analyst concerns about lower iPhone sales sent shares tumbling late last year.
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Waste is one of the inherent features of a consumer-spending-driven economy: Companies keep selling things in order to post profits, consumers keep buying them because they have disposable income, and our standard of living improves. There is little apparent downside when consumers throw things away—trash disappears from office buildings and apartment buildings overnight.
But lithium-ion batteries are different from other waste. Tossing them in the trash can create fires at waste-management facilities.
Most lithium-ion batteries contain cobalt, which is often mined in terrible conditions in the developing world. A handful of states, including Minnesota and New York, require battery manufacturers to fund recycling and collection programs, and some states prohibit the disposal of batteries in landfills, but many more states have no requirements that consumers recycle their batteries.
Apple has gained fans for its sleek design.
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It means the batteries in AirPods and many other Apple devices are essentially impossible to replace or recycle yourself. When the AirPods were released, Wiens took them apart to see how difficult it would be to strip the headphones of their lithium-ion batteries and other material. He found that because Apple glues AirPods together, the only way to separate the battery from the case would be to use a knife, which means risking an explosion.