The Dirty Problem With Electric Vehicles? Mining for Batteries

Even the 'green' option has environmental costs

  • Recycling lithium could make batteries more sustainable.
  • Even an electric car has to be manufactured, with an environmental cost.
  • Perhaps we should think beyond just replacing gas with batteries.
Battery in an EV

Kumpan Electric / Unsplash

Personal automobiles cause a huge amount of pollution, but electric vehicles have their own problems. 

To solve the climate crisis, we need to stop pumping greenhouse gases into the air. Cars produce a lot of these, so the solution is to replace them with electric cars. And that's a great solution for car manufacturers because they can just keep on selling vehicles to individuals. But those cars still cause plenty of pollution, still crash and kill people at intersections, and still require massive, carbon-producing resources to build them. And that's before we even get to the batteries, which themselves rely on scarce resources that have to be mined out of the earth.

"The reality is that manufacturing massive numbers of batteries for electric vehicles, though formidable, isn't the biggest challenge. Sourcing the materials required for advanced, high-density propulsion batteries in environmentally-sound ways, in North America, is a bigger issue with no easy solution," says Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of Green Car Journal, told Lifewire via email. 

Batteries Included

EV in a charging bay

dcbel / Unsplash

Electric Vehicles (EVs) are way better than petrol-burning cars in plenty of ways. They don't dirty up the city air. They're way quieter at low speeds, and they can be run off renewable sources of power like wind and solar. But they are only green when compared to today's oil-burning vehicles. Building an electric car is still building a car. An EV's biggest problem is its batteries

EVs run on the same kind of lithium-ion batteries that power your laptop, only they're way, way bigger. The main material needed is lithium, and this comes from mining or from salt deserts. And like any natural resource, the amount is limited. 

"Every major automaker is transitioning to electric cars in some capacity, whether it be hybrid or entirely electronic. The question that this poses is, how can we have enough lithium? This depends on how we can rebuild our electric grid and find other solutions and innovations in battery-making. It also depends on whether we are willing to recycle these batteries (which is possible) to be repurposed and reused," John Shegerian, CEO of electronic recycling provider ERI, told Lifewire via email. 

Recycling batteries might be the most important thing we can do when transitioning to EVs. 

Batteries are already big business. Not only are they used in consumer electronics and cars, but are also needed to bridge the offset between the supply and demand of renewable electricity. That is, batteries store excess power when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining and keep it for when they are not. 

"Already, major EV battery manufacturers like Panasonic are investing billions of dollars in battery manufacturing facilities in the US In addition, auto manufacturers are also investing huge sums in US battery manufacturing facilities, often in tandem with major battery companies," says Cogan

Recycling batteries might be the most important thing we can do when transitioning to EVs. 

"One of the most critical technological developments will be capturing recycled battery materials from production scrap and end-of-life vehicles in the US," Anthony DeOrsey, leader of Cleantech Group's research team, told Lifewire via email. 

The EV Mistake

Electric bus in Toronto, Canada

Nathalia Segato / Unsplash

The assumption in all of this is that we have to have personal vehicles that are exactly the same as the ones we have now, only with batteries. But as cities like London, Paris, Barcelona, and Copenhagen all work to drive the car out of city life, shouldn’t we rethink the role of the car entirely? Even if batteries turned out not to be as sustainable as we’d hoped, we still have to build out charging infrastructure to juice all those electric cars. 

Instead, we should reduce cars and increase alternatives, especially in cities where population density and the relatively small distances we travel make this viable. 

“Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft will decrease the need for personal vehicles for some people. Hopefully, improved transportation options like electric light rail, electric shuttles, and even electric bikes for urban transport will complement the convenience of personal use vehicles, working in harmony to achieve crucial environmental goals,” says Cogan. 

In Germany, where I live, car-sharing schemes, bike-sharing, public transit, and bikes are all popular, normalized ways to get around. And that might be the biggest barrier—getting people to give up their cars.

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