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Tech product lifespans are bad for consumers, ‘huge problem’ for the environment: Expert

Washington Post Technology Columnist Geoffrey Fowler joins Yahoo Finance Live to talk about the lifespan in tech devices and their lithium batteries, how they are designed to eventually die, and the environmental impact of tech waste.

Video transcript

- Have you ever had the batteries in one of your favorite devices start to die, only to realize you can't actually swap that battery out. Well, that's actually by design. And it effectively means many gadgets have, as the "Washington Post," puts it, a death date. Now, "Washington Post" technology columnist Geoffrey Fowler analyzed the lifespan of AirPods and found that they're designed to die approximately 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 die so quickly.

GEOFFREY FOWLER: Yeah. I wanted to figure out when all of these devices that I own were going to end up dying because it happened to me with my AirPods. I bought them. After about two years, I started hearing that do-do-do-do-do sound in them, meaning that they couldn't hold the battery for more than 5 to 10 minutes at a time. But I took them to Apple and I said, hey, can you replace these? Can you replace the battery in these? And they said no.

And it turns out AirPods are not alone in this. Lots and lots of the devices that we own today have a dirty little secret. They all contain lithium rechargeable batteries. And lithium batteries are a good that's going to wear out over time. They're kind of like the tires in our cars or the printer ink that we've got. And those products, of course, you can get new tires. You can get new printer ink. But in a lot of our gadgets, you can't put in new batteries.

- Jeff, I'm still playing a Nintendo Wii from 20 years ago that works like it is brand new. Is this a new practice that these companies or is it just new battery material and therefore inevitable?

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

Well, unfortunately, we did all just go and buy new ones. I still have mine. It's been sitting in a drawer since then. And Apple and the rest of the consumer electronics industry learned the wrong lesson from this. They said, aha, this is a way to get 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 in them, but selling them inside in the hopes that when the batteries do die necessarily after a couple of years, we'll just toss them out and buy a new one.

I think that's bad for us as consumers. It's expensive. It's annoying. But it's also a huge problem for the environment. I mean, we're not talking nearly enough about the kind of challenges that we're producing for the carbon that we're putting into the air every time a new device gets made to the sustainability of mining all of the materials that it takes to make one of these devices.

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

GEOFFREY FOWLER: Amen. So I think it starts with naming and shaming. And that's what I'm trying to do as a consumer advocate in the "Washington Post." That's why I published a list of death dates. I asked 14 makers of devices to tell me what's known as the cycle count of the battery in their devices. It's planned from the beginning. And it's kind of the death date that's ticking inside. A lot of these companies didn't want to give up that number even when the "Washington Post" asked them. Maybe we need some rules or some laws from the FTC.

Or maybe we could turn to France as a model. It actually for the last year or so has had a rule that whenever you're selling a device, like at the French equivalent of a Best Buy, there has to be a little label right next to it that has a score from 0 to 10 that says how repairable is this thing. I think that's a great idea. Maybe that's the next place we go in the US. One other idea, maybe we just need laws that say you can't design a product with a battery that can't be replaced or serviced. And they're considering that in Europe as well.

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

GEOFFREY FOWLER: Yeah. It's a whole range of things. I mean, so everything from the AirPods-- which are 170-180 bucks, they have tiny batteries in them, and they're totally glued inside so you can't pop them out-- to a Tesla. I have a Model Y. And I just tried to figure out in this project, gosh, how long is it going to last? And that thing probably is going to only go 15 years. And then after that, oh my gosh. It's going to cost me more than $20,000 to replace the battery in that. So what can we do?

Well, the way that you charge your products does make an impact. So that means you should follow the manufacturer's instructions when they say don't necessarily take it all the way down to 0 and back to 100. Laptops are actually getting much 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 with each other on who can make products that last the longest.

- Dead by dates. I like this development. Lastly, I want to ask about the Nintendo Switch, a wildly popular. How long does it last?

GEOFFREY FOWLER: Well, Nintendo did admit to me that it can take 800 charge cycles, which is a little bit less than a laptop like a MacBook. But here's the thing. If you're charging that thing sort of fully pretty much every day, you could burn through those in as soon as three or four years.

- Geoff Fowler from the "Washington Post." Excellent news you can use. We appreciate it, sir. Thanks.