Powerful Fictions (and Some Facts): The Truth About EV Battery Harms

Electric vehicles are growing in popularity, but it’s frequently claimed that the batteries they contain aren’t up to the job. Andrea Graves sets the record straight.

First published July 5, 2021

The announcement of the rebate taxation of electric vehicles has prompted keyboard warriors to “educate” others about the harms of electric vehicle batteries. Environmental and human rights activists have come out of unexpected quarters: Winston Peters worries about working conditions in African mines and joins Judith Collins in worrying about a looming stockpile of batteries exhausted electric vehicles.

These alarming claims deserve more than research via social media. Are they true?

Fiction: the batteries of electric vehicles will form a mountain of waste

Worried politicians could turn to New Zealand Battery Industry Group (BIG), a stakeholder group made up of companies, individuals, organizations and academics from the energy, transport, waste and battery sectors. He pledged to avoid a large battery legacy problem and co-designed a circular product stewardship system now under the Ministry of the Environment.

If the system becomes a regulation, all large batteries will have their chain of custody tracked after import. Their life expectancy varies by brand, but the relatively small, faster-degrading battery life of a Nissan Leaf might look like this: five years with an owner who needs a long-range vehicle, who sells to someone who is ready to reload more often, which after another five years sells cheap to someone just hanging around town. A few years later, its remaining capacity may still be useful for a “second life” outside of a car. Counties Power, for example, will soon install ex-Nissan Leaf batteries to store electricity to cover outages and voltage fluctuations in remote locations. He is also working on a battery bank to store off-peak electricity to power electric vehicle charging stations.

Fiction: electric vehicle batteries are not recyclable

BIG proposes to collect a fee when importing a battery, which would finance the distribution of batteries for second life or recycling uses. Dr Peng Cao from the MacDiarmid Institute and the University of Auckland says electric vehicle batteries are fully recyclable, but it’s not cost effective and existing methods are polluting. Local recycling options are being explored and national scrap dealer Metalman hopes to soon offer a recycling service for all common battery types.

Electric vehicle charging at a station in Newmarket, Auckland (Picture: Supplied)

Fact: Electric vehicle batteries (and all electronics) contain toxic materials

All electronic equipment, from cell phones to televisions and electric toothbrushes, contains materials that can be toxic. Like oil, materials are mined from somewhere on the planet, and the resulting environmental destruction is comfortably removed from our shopping experience. EV battery metals are no exception, but there is a gigantic push to do better.

“Developing environmentally friendly and less toxic batteries is a very hot research topic globally,” says Cao, who is part of the effort. “The second generation of electric vehicles tried to minimize the use of cobalt. Now producers are trying to move away from it completely. And the new chemical batteries should be cheaper.

A battery based on aluminium, an abundant and less toxic metal, is being developed by startup Wellington TasmaniaION.

Fact: Children mine cobalt for batteries (and oil refining, etc.)

It’s true and disturbing. About 40,000 children are believed to be involved in dangerous and unregulated mining activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Poverty pushes their families there. The most valuable metal they dig up is cobalt – the same metal battery makers are trying to back out of their products. International coalitions are working to improve conditions that push children to work in the mines and less exploitable source of cobalt of the dark supply chain.

But before throwing stones in a cobalt revolt, check if you live in a glass house. Cobalt is also used in petroleum refining, aircraft engine superalloys and joint replacements. And do you own gold, drink coffee, eat chocolate, sugar or bananas or wear cotton? These are some of the products made by approximately 160 million children who work in often hazardous conditions.

There are also valid concerns about other metals in rechargeable batteries, especially lithium. Again, there is a huge research effort to address this issue, with a local business at the cutting edge.

Fiction: electric vehicles generate more carbon dioxide than conventional cars

Many “life cycle assessments” have calculated the carbon dioxide produced to build, use and dispose of vehicles. They show constantly that although more carbon emissions are generated by electric vehicles than conventional cars during manufacturing, the lifetime emissions of electric vehicles are much lower after a few months or years of average driving (that’s more fast for small electric vehicles and in countries like ours where renewable electricity predominates).

Fiction: electric vehicles are useless if we burn coal

It’s not intuitive, but even where a substantial proportion of electricity is generated from coal, as in Australia, electric vehicles almost always result in lower carbon emissions than conventional vehicles. That’s because internal combustion engines are so inefficient, converting less than 30% of gasoline’s energy into power at the wheels. EV batteries convert nearly 80% of grid power into wheel power. And more renewable electricity is imminent here.

So what should an ethical driver do?

All vehicles are heavy on the planet, so an environmental and human rights defender would use, whenever possible, a less strenuous option like their feet, a bicycle, or public transport.

It’s exhausting to examine the impact of every purchase on distant people and environments, but it’s fair to compare apples to apples. A Fair Trader would balance concerns about child labor and environmental damage caused by battery metals with the injustices they fund with their other purchases. They would take into account the pollution, corruption and wars that result from dependence on oil.

They would rate the battery issues against the immense suffering inflicted on billions of future humans and other species by the massive explosion of atmospheric carbon dioxide caused by burning fossil fuels. The resulting three degrees or more of warming predicted by 2100 seems meager (we are already one degree away), but there is no doubt that the consequences will be profound.

The sea will swallow up many cities. Widespread heat waves, drought, famine, intense storms, fires and severe economic depression are inevitable unless we cut carbon emissions deeply and quickly. Product transportation almost half of New Zealand’s carbon dioxide emissions, and while electric vehicles are imperfect, they are a ready-made way to start eradicating those emissions.

This article was updated on July 8 to clarify the coal vs EV comparison.

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