There is a worry that battery manufacturing and materials sourcing outweigh the positives of the EVs. And there is some truth to the idea that these processes are not environmentally friendly. However, according to a Reuters analysis that factored these datapoints in the calculations, EVs still have less of an environmental impact than ICE vehicles after some time on the road (the “break even” point for an EV will depend on a lot of factors, so it can vary wildly from 8,400 miles for a Tesla 3 in Norway to 78,700 miles for that same car in Poland). 

The use of batteries is a huge help in lessening the impact that road transport has on global carbon emissions. But we need to be realistic about the impact the batteries can have due to the way they’re produced, used, and disposed.  

Production 

Batteries don’t just appear out of nowhere. The lithium-ion batteries in most electric vehicles are made of raw materials whose mining is sometimes linked to serious human rights concerns,  including child labor and unsafe working practices. 

Mining these materials can also be environmentally damaging. The way raw materials are extracted uses a lot of energy and water, mine waste can leach and harm the nearby communities and the environment, and smelting can emit sulphur oxide among other harmful pollutants. 

Ensuring that the batteries are made in a responsible way that, ideally, causes no damage (or at least much less damage than it does now) is something to consider if we want to claim EVs to be environmentally friendly or environmentally responsible. Manufacturers can pledge social responsibility and only work with providers who are themselves environmentally responsible and don’t violate human rights in pursuit of profit. It’s not something that can be faked or swept under the carpet in this world of social media anymore.  

Recycling 

As the EV industry grows and the demand for batteries amps up along with it, recycled materials will need to make a large percentage of the supply chain. Although we’ll have to rely on mining for some time to create the batteries necessary to go electric, at some point we’ll be able to create a closed-loop economy by reclaiming the materials from existing, old batteries. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that while recycled lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper currently provide very little of battery materials, by 2040 they will make up an estimated 8.1% of metals demand. 

The problem is that the lead-acid battery technology is older than the lithium-ion type used in most electric vehicles. As a result, their recycling rates are very different, with the former reaching almost 100% and the latter only about 5%. However, the industry is taking note and investments in lithium-ion recycling facilities are on the rise.  

Recycling facilities can recover active materials including plastic, copper, and aluminum, as well as anode and cathode materials that can be refined for high-purity battery chemicals. Recent tests show that lithium batteries made with recycled materials are just as good, if not better, than brand new ones. But, depending on the process, recycling batteries can use large amounts of water or emit pollutants. This is why considering giving the batteries a second life is a good idea.  

Secondary markets for ex-vehicle batteries are a promising option, notably in the grid storage market where the energy density per volume (or mass) of the battery is less important than it is in a vehicle. This is just the beginning of the road and more testing is needed, but there are promising options out there. Recently, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that used car batteries could be used for a decade (or more) as backup storage for solar power. 

The longer the batteries can be used safely in any capacity (in a car or in the grid storage market), the greener electric power will become. But cooperation between industries and technological leaders is necessary to make the right choices that benefit everyone involved, including the environment.