Few would argue electric vehicles aren’t without their faults — they’re often expensive, take time to charge, etc. Their positive effect on the environment, however, is rarely brought into question.
The presence of an electric-powered battery in lieu of an internal combustion engine allows these cars to roam the roadways without producing any harmful tailpipe emissions. But between manufacturing, charging and recycling them, these batteries may not be as green as they seem. It begs the question: are electric car batteries bad for the environment?
Let’s follow an electric car battery through its life cycle to see where it’s helping the environment and where it’s not.
The environmental toll of electric car batteries begins before the product is even assembled, most notably in the mining of its active material, lithium. To extract lithium from the Earth, an immense amount of water (as much as 2 million gallons per metric ton of lithium by some estimates), is pumped down into salt flats, bringing mineral-rich saltwater to the surface. Lithium is filtered out of the mixture left behind after the water evaporates.
This water-intensiveness is problematic for several reasons, including its potential to contaminate the water supply. Further complicating the issue is the location of these mines, many of which are found in desert regions of Australia and China. More than half of the Earth’s lithium supply, however, is in the Lithium Triangle, spanning Andean Mountain sections of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The area is one of the driest places on the globe and lithium mining consumes as much as 65% of the region’s water, according to the United Nations.
Lithium isn’t the only potentially hazardous electric vehicle battery material. The process of mining for cobalt, nearly 70% of which is done in the Democratic Republic of Congo, produces hazardous byproducts that can toxify the environment. Cobalt mine sites often contain sulphur, which generate sulfuric acid when exposed to air and water. This process wreaks havoc on rivers, streams and aquatic life, creating damage that can last for hundreds of years, according to the United Nations.
Because of methods required to mine for its raw materials, and their subsequent environmental effects, battery production is likely the most environmentally damaging stage in the manufacturing of electric vehicles. Research by the European Environment Agency found batteries alone account for 10% to 75% of the energy and 10% to 70% of the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the entire production of the vehicle.
If you remove the lithium battery from the equation, production of electric and gas-powered vehicles is very similar and thus, have nearly identical effects on the environment. Its inclusion, however, puts electric vehicle manufacturing’s environmental impact over the top. The same EEA study found production of electric cars emits between 1.3 and 2 times the amount of greenhouse gases than that of internal-combustion vehicles.
Critics of electric vehicles are often quick to point out that green vehicles aren’t, in fact, green. They are charged by an electrical grid likely powered by fossil fuels. This is true. Unless the electricity utilized to power an electric car battery is derived entirely from renewable energy, there are emissions associated with it.
But electric grids across the country are shifting to a mix of natural gas, wind and solar power. Currently, 17% of the electricity in the United States is powered by renewable energy, according to the EPA. (Power is even greener closer to home. Nearly 20% of New England’s electrical grid and more than 40% of upstate New York’s is fueled by renewable sources.) Regardless of where you live, you’re likely getting at least some of your power from green energy.
Even accounting for electricity emissions, however, research shows that an electric vehicle is typically responsible for lower levels of greenhouse gases than an average new gasoline car due to the complete absence of tailpipe emissions over the entirety of the car’s lifespan. Gas-powered cars, as we know, are another story. The EPA has continuously found the country’s transportation sector to be the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, with cars and trucks leading the way within the category.
Electric and internal-combustion vehicles have drastically different environmental effects when the cars are in use. But when it comes to recycling, the situation is completely reversed. As little as 5% of the world’s lithium batteries are recycled, according to Chemical and Engineering News, a stark contrast to the 99% of lead car batteries recycled here in the U.S.
The dearth of recycled lithium batteries has significant economic repercussions, but it also takes a dire toll on the environment. Most lithium batteries end up in landfills, where their hazardous components can leak into the soil and groundwater. Landfills are also a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, the EPA reports. Recycling would also limit the need for mining raw materials, an environmentally destructive stage in an electric car battery’s lifespan.
So why are so few lithium car batteries recycled? In short, because it takes a lot of time, money and effort. Unlike lead batteries, there’s no standardization when it comes to lithium car batteries. They often vary in size, shape and component ratios from one manufacturer to another. Each one, therefore, needs to be broken down in a different matter, creating a highly labor- and energy-intensive process. Making matters worse, battery packs are not designed to be disassembled. They can contain several thousand individual battery cells plus a complex system of circuitry and sensors. All of these components are tight packed together and secured in a plastic or aluminum case.
Like other aspects of electric vehicles, lithium battery recycling finds itself stuck in a chicken-and-egg problem. Because of the aforementioned hurdles, governments and private companies have been hesitant to invest in large-scale recycling programs but improving recycling efficiency won’t occur without such efforts. We are beginning to see some changes in this however. In 2019, the Department of Energy announced the creation of the ReCell Center, the government’s first lithium battery recycling research center. That same year, it created a $5.5 million Battery Recycling Prize for devising innovative solutions for collecting, storing and transporting discarded lithium batteries to recycling centers.
So, are EV batteries bad for the environment?
Environmentally speaking, electric vehicle batteries are far from perfect: assembling them depletes the earth of its natural resources, manufacturing them is energy-intensive, charging them requires dirty energy, recycling them is nearly impossible.
These negative effects, however, are offset by the absence of tailpipe emissions throughout the vehicle’s lifetime. A recent study by the International Council on Clean Transportation found electric vehicles in the U.S. produce 60%–68% fewer emissions over their lifetime than gas-powered cars.
So, in short, electric vehicles are the more climate-friendly choice. That said, there’s room for improvement. More efficient manufacturing methods, greener electric grids and improved recycling options would benefit electric car batteries —and the environment—going forward.
Learn more about the future of electric vehicles.