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A Replaceable Battery? Now That Would Be Innovative.

by Elizabeth Jardim

September 17, 2018

With autumn comes the new gadget parade — so why can’t tech companies smarten up when it comes to batteries?

You’ll detect the slightest hint of panic in my eyes as I embark to wedge my old battery out of my phone. ©Liz Jardim

As people around the world increasingly use smartphones and other internet-connected devices, the environmental cost of these gadgets — like the vast quantity of raw materials needed to make them and the mounds of e-waste created after just a few years of use — is astounding.

An obvious way to start tackling these problems is for our devices to last for more than just a couple years. Lisa Jackson, VP of Environment at Apple, said as much at her company’s anticipated product launch last week. “Because [our products] last longer you can keep using them, and keeping using them is the best thing for the planet.” But there is one essential part in our phones that is really holding back this vision — the battery.

Apple’s VP of Environment Lisa Jackson shared with media that using phones longer is the best thing for the planet. ©Apple Inc.

Despite being known to degenerate with use, the batteries in our gadgets have become increasingly tricky to replace.

I myself have wrestled to replace my iPhone 6 battery, and it was a tense undertaking from the start. After removing a couple screws which required a special screwdriver, I used suction cups to pry the display from the frame —  be careful, too much force will have you tearing some of the cables that power the display (yes, a mistake I learned the hard way). Disconnecting the battery’s power cable is easy enough if you have tiny tools.

But then things get a little gnarly.

The delicate adhesive strips that hold the battery in place ripped, so I had to employ a hairdryer and an old credit card to gradually wedge the ailing battery from the back of the phone. This was a technique I employed again several months later when my phone started to show the worrying signs of a bulging battery. Both times I was triumphant in the end, in no small part thanks to iFixit’s helpful tutorials, but the buried, glued-in battery make these repairs so much harder than they need to be.

My iPhone 6 before repair number 2. Notice the battery is bulging so much it’s popping part of the display off the frame. ©Liz Jardim

Last year, we profiled 25 smartphones based on repairability, and only four had a battery that could be easily replaced — Fairphone, 2 older LG models and Xioami’s Note 3 — none are from Apple.

The solution to this problem is simple: Start making batteries in our gadgets replaceable again. This will make it easier for all of us to use our phones longer than just the useful life of the battery.

Not only is this better for your wallet, but straightforward battery removal also makes it easier and safer to recycle the device when its finally ready to move on. Like me, recyclers have to wrestle with old electronics to separate the various pieces from each other. The more time and labor intensive this process, the more it costs —  not to mention dangerous! Recyclers across the country have reported explosions and fires caused by lithium-ion batteries. Plus, the more we can re-use the materials in lithium batteries, the less we’ll have to rely on virgin cobalt, where workers and children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are risking their lives to dig up this precious substance.  

As the world shifts to more battery-powered devices, we must move beyond single-use electronics. Sustainable product design starts at the top. Electronics brands need to design products with replaceable batteries.

Apple may have kicked off the gadget parade, but announcements from Google, Samsung and others will continue throughout the fall. We will be watching closely for innovations that matter — product design with some consideration for repairs and upgrades. The first company that does that will win my dollar. Until then, I’ll keep my trusty iPhone 6, on its third battery, and working just fine.

If you feel inspired to fix your own phone, and I hope you do, check out iFixit! They will give you the tricks and confidence you need to get the same #RepairHigh as me.

Then join us in calling on Apple to make our batteries replaceable again! Visit Rethink-it.org.

Elizabeth Jardim

By Elizabeth Jardim

Elizabeth Jardim is a corporate campaigner for Greenpeace USA. Her work is focused on pushing the IT sector to adopt renewable energy and more sustainable manufacturing practices.

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