It’s hard to beat the convenience of a good pair of wireless earbuds. Apple’s AirPods have been leaders in this category since they were released and really launched the product category into the mainstream. They succeeded by streamlining the process of connecting a pair of buds and then making it incredibly easy to swap them between devices. All of the above can be a pain using traditional Bluetooth connections, but Apple did a masterful job of removing all of that friction and frustration.
I wasn’t sure I would care for the original AirPods when I first ordered them, but after just a few hours of use on day one, I was sold. They sounded fine and the battery life was good when you factored in the ease of recharging in the case. However, it was ultimately the convenience factor that sealed the deal for me.
Unfortunately, that convenience factor does come with a cost. A small set of wireless buds is going to be powered by even smaller batteries that typically go through a LOT of charge cycles in the typical 1-3 year lifespan. By the end of year two, no matter how well you take care of your AirPods, you are going to notice a difference in battery life. That battery degradation tends to drive upgrades and unfortunately, older pairs that aren’t working as well or may stop working altogether often end up in a landfill or worse.
Enter a new startup with a creative solution to a common problem. Emily Alpert and Emma Stritzinger, former college roommates at UCLA, founded Podswap to take on the problem of AirPods being viewed as disposable and unrepairable. An interview with iFixit explains a bit about the company’s beginnings:
Back in early 2020, when Alpert and friend Emma Stritzinger were sharing their low-battery pain and researching solutions, the accepted answer was that AirPods were disposable. We tore down the first-generation, second-generation, and Pro pods, and stated they were not designed to be fixed by any human. But the pair wouldn’t give up. “We knew this was a widespread issue and were persistent in finding the solution,” Strizinger said.
The end result of Alpert and Stritzinger’s efforts- a freshly refurbished pair of first or second gen AirPods with new batteries for only $60. Every returned pair is then refurbished and re-sold, and the virtuous cycle is continued.
iFixit’s interview also touches on how Podswap is currently beating Apple at their own game.
How do they trade out batteries, at lower prices than Apple’s own “battery service” (read: total replacement)? Alpert and Stritzinger only let on so much in an interview. Alpert said their battery swapping involves “specialized equipment and precision robotics,” in a “somewhat automated process.” Every part of the AirPod, except the battery, is re-used, after being thoroughly brushed and disinfected with UVC light. And the replacement AirPods customers receive look identical to standard AirPods, minus “fine scratches and other minor imperfections,” as detailed on the product page.
I guess robots are the answer to pretty much any tough problem dealing with production, right? However they accomplish it, I’m 100% in favor of what these savvy ladies are doing and I hope this concept proves to be profitable, sustainable, and maybe even applicable to other small devices. In an increasingly digital world full of battery-powered devices that are getting smaller and smaller all the time, e-waste is a HUGE problem that’s only going to get more difficult to deal with over time. We need creative solutions like this one to recycle everything possible from aging devices to keep those materials in service and out of landfills or worse.
Based on the reviews I’ve read online, Podswap is delivering refurbished AirPods that work like new and also deliver standard battery life that you would expect from a new pair. When the time comes for my 2nd gen AirPods to be put out to pasture in the future, I could definitely see myself sending them to Podswap for a new lease on life. The only thing missing right now is that the company does’t handle AirPods Pro…yet. According to that same iFixit interview, they should be refurbishing them in the future, as well.
If you are finding your AirPods don’t have the same get up and go that they used to, or they’ve stopped working altogether, I would definitely recommend taking a look at Podswap as a way to replace them in a sustainable manner.