How “Eco-Friendly” are Electric Cars?

Written by
Sawyer Mitchell
July 21, 2023

Batteries have become essential to modern society in the last 80 years. They started off in our radios, toys, and cars (for starting and lighting); however, batteries have been advanced to power cell phones, computers, and now electric cars. The difference? Lithium. With society progressively becoming more dependent on electronics, the demand for lithium-ion batteries is continuously increasing. This is especially true when taking the recent push towards electric cars into account. With society becoming more concerned with climate change and fossil fuel depletion, electric cars have experienced a significant rise in demand. They are seen as a more eco-friendly form of transportation, but how true is that?

The Truth About Electric Car Batteries: As reported by Tesla, their electric vehicles require around 7,000 lithium-ion batteries with a life-span of 300,000 to 500,000 miles. At the end of their usage, each Tesla vehicle produces over 5,000 pounds of lithium battery waste. Where does all of that waste go? The disposal of these types of batteries can be a lot more complex than one might think. Lithium-ion batteries are classified as hazardous waste, meaning they cannot just be dumped in a household dumpster. In most cases, there are local guidelines and regulations that must be followed when getting rid of electric car batteries. However, if you are unaware of these or your community does not have proper collection methods, it is easy to not manage the battery waste correctly. The improper disposal of lithium-ion batteries is frighteningly common, as 98.3% of them end up in landfills. The environmental impact of this widespread waste mismanagement can be seen immediately and is a cause of concern.

Landfills Set Ablaze: Even batteries that have been used hold enough energy to become a fire hazard. Because of this, taking proper handling and disposal precautions is crucial. With the increase in electric car usage, landfill fires more than doubled from 2018 to 2020. These landfill fires can last for years due to the combination of different chemical contaminants present. Not only does this cause concern for the spreading of fires outside of the landfill but it also releases hazardous toxins into the air, risking human health and contributing to the emittance of green house gases that electric vehicles were made to prevent.

The Health Impacts: In addition to air pollution from fires, the improper disposal of lithium-ion batteries can lead to other forms of environmental contamination. Lithium-ion batteries do not solely contain lithium but also cobalt and nickel. These heavy metals can leach into soil and water systems, causing toxicity. This can be detrimental to an ecosystem as it affects the health of wildlife and humans. Water pollution from this heavy metal contamination can render water sources undrinkable and uninhabitable for aquatic life. These toxins can find their way into water either through landfill leachate or runoff from improper dumpsites. Additonally, the accumulation of heavy metal toxicity in soil can reduce soil fertility and make it more difficult for plants to grow. Once contaminated, it is extremely difficult to reverse the impacts of heavy metal pollution in soil.

When it comes to public health, pollution from mismanaged battery waste can have harmful impacts. Ionic lithium has been found to affect the central nervous system, which can cause chronic symptoms in humans. Other toxic substances released by the degrading batteries can cause respiratory problems, developmental issues, and even lead to severe illnesses like cancer. These health effects can be brought on by consuming contaminated water or being exposed to polluted air. Moreover, those working in recycling facilities or landfills face significant health risks due to exposure to harmful fumes and dusts without proper protective measures. With such serious health implications, it is important to resolve the problem of lithium-ion battery waste mismanagement.

How You Can Help: The main reason for this pollution is the mismanagement of used batteries, which can be fixed. With the focus on electric vehicles as the source of lithium-ion battery waste, car manufacturers can play a huge role in resolving this problem. Some car manufacturers have established authorized collection points for old electric car batteries. These points ensure that batteries are recycled or disposed of correctly, following environmental regulations. If this became widespread, heavily advertised, and even incentivized, there could be a large decline in improper battery disposal. Most manufacturers will also provide useful information on other recycling options in your area. It is important to find a recycling program or facility that can properly handle and dispose of these types of batteries, known as certified battery electronics recyclers. Lithium-ion batteries cannot just be thrown in a municipal recycling bin. Further, with these batteries being a fire hazard, it is important to also talk to the car manufacturer or recycling facility to plan for their safe transportation.

Recycling does not have to be the only option. Lithium-ion batteries can also be repurposed and can have second-life applications. They can be utilized for energy storage systems in homes or businesses, which provides a sustainable purpose for “old” batteries that may still have usable capacity. When purchasing an electric vehicle, keep in mind what disposal methods could be right for you. It is critical to know what to do with your used batteries in order to reduce the impact vehicles have on the environment. If we are able to properly manage battery waste, we can ensure that electric cars are fulfilling their purpose of bettering the environment.

Electric cars have experienced a significant rise in demand. They are seen as a more eco-friendly form of transportation, but how true is that?
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