EVs | climate change | environment | waste management

The downsides of electric vehicles

How green are electric vehicles?

- By Roshani Giri |

Photo by Kelly from Pexels
Photo by Kelly from Pexels

Governments and companies around the globe have promoted electric vehicles to tackle climate change, because they are an alternative to fossil-fuel-run vehicles in a race to limit human-induced climate change. According to the International Energy Agency, the global sales of electric vehicles doubled in 2021 to 6.6 million, amounting to 10% of the worldwide car sales. This shows the increasing interest of people in electric vehicles for environmental reasons, suggesting that sales will increase in the future.

For individuals opting for electric vehicles, a major question that pops out is: are electric vehicles, or EVs, really "green"? While there is no doubt that EVs are much greener than conventional vehicles and emit much less carbon dioxide, it is pertinent that we look at some not-so-green aspects of electric vehicles as well. 

When plastic was invented in the 1900s, it was hailed as a great invention that could save the environment from massive deforestation by manufacturing paper bags, which were rampant. Though plastic has been able to save trees less than 100 years after its invention, it has appeared to be one of the biggest environmental concerns of the century in the form of insurmountable plastic pollution. Then, the true question arises: did our invention of plastic save the environment? This outlook is critical to ensure that we do not find a solution to climate change to move to our next environmental problems to surface in the future.

Labeling something green may not necessarily mean it is green. As conscious consumers opt for electric vehicles due to environmental concerns, companies and the government owe consumers the bare truth to make free and informed decisions about whether or not to choose EVs. After all, one of the foundations of consumer protection laws is that individuals have the right to make free and informed decisions and not to be lied to about a product.

The true shade of green
Suppose we fail to consider other impacts of electric cars and how to mitigate such effects on the environment. In that case, the hail of electric vehicles might be temporary until other forms of environmental hazards appear. For instance, mountains of waste lithium-ion batteries, the contamination of water resources from discarded batteries, or massive environmental problems due to mining metals for vehicles. Besides, considering whether the source in which the electric cars are charged (i.e., whether the source is itself green or not), it is crucial that electric vehicles be understood in their totality. 

Electric vehicles replaced lead-acid batteries used in conventional cars with lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are increasingly in demand (projected to be worth $100 billion by 2025) because of their energy density, i.e., the amount of energy that can be stored in an amount of space. So smaller lithium-ion batteries can hold more power, making them a practical choice for the new generation of "green" electric cars. However, these batteries may not be as green as companies try to make us believe. It may even pose significant health and environmental hazards unless the mode of manufacturing and disposal changes. 

Lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars have two-fold environmental impacts. First, the mining stage has significant ecological and human rights implications and second, the end stage of their life–disposal. Today, the world's lithium supply comes from Australia, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. The mining of lithium is environmentally hazardous and affects the indigenous people's rights to access water. Lithium mining uses large amounts of groundwater, limiting water availability to farmers and herders of the region. Furthermore, given the problems of recycling associated with li-ion batteries, dirty-energy-intensive mining of metals like cobalt, lithium, manganese and nickel has to be considered in the greenhouse emission of the entire battery supply chain.

Similarly, the mining of cobalt in DR Congo (from where 70% of the world's cobalt comes) is ridden with human rights abuses like the use of child labor, fatal accidents and so on. Yes, it's undeniable that lithium-ion batteries are less toxic than lead-acid batteries. However, the main concern is the disposal of these batteries.

One primary consideration in the race for sustainability is whether a substance can be easily recycled. After all, only a circular movement of goods without producing much waste is sustainable. Concerning lead-acid batteries, according to an article published by the Yale School of Environment, almost 99% of the batteries are recycled partly due to legal requirements (for instance, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the only lawful means of disposing of a lead acid battery is to recycle it at an approved recycling facility). Then what is the problem with lithium batteries? Can we not just make laws and recycle them? 

Partly yes. Legislation can help ensure that the li-ion batteries are recycled when used fully and that manufacturers make them more recyclable and manufacture new batteries entirely or at least partly from recycled metals. However, only a few countries (EU and China) have legal provisions for establishing mandatory facilities to collect and recycle spent li-ion batteries. The EU has proposed that all new batteries from 2030 comprise at least a "certain percentage" of recycled contents. But the bigger problem than making laws is that li-ion batteries, as they are manufactured today, are not produced with recycling, making it difficult for the recyclers to navigate their way through recycling.   

The battery waste that electric vehicles generate may amount to hazardous waste under the Basel Convention on controlling the transboundary movement of hazardous waste and its disposal. In 1989, countries concluded the Basel Convention, recognizing the risk of damage to human health and the environment caused by hazardous waste. 

Some countries regulate li-ion batteries as hazardous waste under their domestic laws for imports or exports, meaning that they are equivalent to dangerous waste, attracting controls and trade prohibitions under the Basel Convention. For instance, the United States Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that li-ion batteries may meet the definition of hazardous waste in Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and requires the waste generators to group them with other dangerous waste.

Undeniably, the number of waste batteries will only increase, shifting our problems from climate change fueled by conventional cars and modes of transportation to hazardous waste generated by electric vehicles' li-ion batteries. Now the question arises–are we being short-sighted in trying to shift from the immediate problem to another one to surface in a few decades? This brings us to a bigger question of how governments and companies plan to produce, recycle and dispose of lithium batteries. And how does the current legal framework govern the disposal of li-ion batteries?

The Basel Convention requires all state parties (Nepal ratified the Convention in 1996) to ensure minimal generation and transboundary movement of hazardous waste. It regulates hazardous waste regarding its international movement or transportation and disposal. If the hazardous waste generated cannot be recycled or reused, the states should ensure that such wastes are disposed of in an environmentally sound manner. Today, neither the state parties are making legal arrangements to ensure that li-ion batteries do not contain any listed hazardous waste, nor are they paying enough attention to ensure their environmentally sound disposal and recycling.

In Nepal, any substance listed in the Basel Convention and explosive, flammable and corrosive substances are considered hazardous. Under Nepali domestic laws, lithium is a hazardous waste given that, as a metal, it is highly reactive, explosive, and corrosive. However, Nepal's waste management legal framework has little to no extra caution in the disposal of hazardous waste, such as li-ion batteries or compulsory recycling where possible.

The waste management policy of Nepal is pretty bleak. Despite one of the objectives of the Waste Management Policy 1996 being minimizing environmental pollution and adverse effect on public health, the policy fails to put forward strategies and policies to reduce hazardous waste. Though the policy discusses managing waste with minimum environmental pollution, no explicit policies are seen in managing hazardous waste. Furthermore, the waste management policy does not make provisions for transboundary movement of hazardous waste, citing a lack of technical capacity or necessary facilities.

The Basel Convention has made this provision to ensure that those countries, like Nepal, who may not have the required capacity to handle hazardous waste, can export the waste to another country that can take waste in an environmentally sound manner or may use waste as a raw material for recycling or recovery industries.

The 2013 Waste Management Rule has referred to the disposal of harmful waste. But it merely makes provision for the government to permit individuals and institutions generating toxic waste to manage such waste and that permission will be revoked if they dispose of the garbage in violation of existing environmental laws. 

Though the rule allows individuals or institutions generating hazardous waste to apply for permission to manage the trash, the law creates a loophole for the disposal of hazardous waste generated by consumers at individual levels. Individuals usually change their batteries at auto-care centers and leave their old batteries with them. 

However, the rule does not create an obligation on those auto-care centers (they are not manufacturers or producers of those batteries) to hand those batteries to recyclers or disposers. They will only do so if they have some motivation to do so. As a rule, it is framed as an obligation of the manufacturers and producers rather than the government to dispose of the waste properly. It fails to create a motivation to hand over such batteries to the proper authorities. 

According to the Environment Protection Act, it is up to the manufacturers and producers to manage hazardous waste that is not adverse to the environment. However, given that the li-ion batteries are manufactured by companies situated and registered abroad, Nepal does not have jurisdiction to make them responsible as provisioned by the Act. The use of the term "manufacturer or producer" makes the importers and sellers outside the purview of the application of the Act and does not assign them any responsibilities to either recycle or properly get rid of batteries. As a result, waste management depends on consumers by handing them over to the licensees to dispose of hazardous waste. This legal framework fails to make the government responsible under the Basel Convention to ensure environmentally sound disposal of hazardous waste.

The current legal framework for disposal of hazardous waste in Nepal fails to provide sufficient and proper disposal facilities by stating that the government may specify any place hazardous waste has been stored or disposed of. Therefore, the government solely relies on private licensees to dispose of the hazardous waste, making the disposal of li-ion batteries in Nepal uncertain. Undoubtedly, we need new forms of transportation to save us from certain doom if we continue to depend on fossil fuels for our vehicles.

However, that new form of transportation has to be such that it is sustainable and not just a new type of car. Therefore, as long as the mining of the vital metals used in the batteries is not environment- and human rights-friendly, batteries used in electric vehicles are not recyclable and are not legally mandated to recycle, electric cars will continue to have a not-so-green side which may very well haunt us in the decades to come.

Roshani Giri holds a Masters in Law from the University of Cambridge. She can be reached at [email protected]

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