Electric scooters are all the rage across many European cities.
Powered by electricity, easily accessible and with zero direct emissions, you’d assume that e-scooters are much more eco-friendly than other forms of transports. Indeed, many of these electric scooters are marketed as sustainable and better for the environment.
But is this really all there is to the environmental impact of e-scooters? They do have an environmental footprint and tend to have a very short lifespan, which makes them less green.
So, here’s all you need to know about the sustainability of e-scooters, their environmental drawbacks and their potential going forward.
How eco-friendly are e-scooters, really?
E-scooters are far from a brand-new phenomenon. The first mass-produced electric scooter dates back to the mid-90s, and its invention goes back far earlier, all the way to the early 20th century.
But one of the main reasons why electric scooters have become so popular and now occupy a segment of many public transport systems comes down to how they’ve been marketed.
Pioneer ride-sharing companies like Bird and Lime have always highlighted environmental sustainability as the top benefit of using e-scooters. Add this to their accessibility and convenience, and these companies are on to a winner.
Still, electric-powered vehicles and e-bikes still consume fossil fuels when charging their batteries. The manufacturing process behind each scooter is also not without its faults.
So, in what way are e-scooters eco-friendly and in what way are they not?
The top environmental benefits of e-scooters
Let’s start with the good parts first.
When we compare e-scooter emissions to conventional car emissions, scooters definitely come out on top as the more sustainable option.
In the UK alone, cars are responsible for over 18% of all CO2 emissions. Further contributing to our ever-rising greenhouse gas emissions and, in turn, climate change.
Using e-scooters, on the other hand, can help us take advantage of the convenience of personal transport without having to contribute to as many carbon emissions and climbing air pollution in the process.
On top of that, they are lightweight, affordable, easy to store and easy to drive around without having to spend time and money on a license.
If your choice is between driving a car or an electric scooter, choosing the scooter is a no brainer.
But if you’re choosing between an e-scooter and public transport or a classic bike, the negative environmental impact of these vehicles becomes a lot harder to ignore…
The environmental disadvantages of e-scooters
E-scooters don’t require as much fossil fuel use as cars and emit considerably less carbon when used.
However, this doesn’t mean that they are an eco-friendly option.
Carbon emissions of electric scooters
According to a study published by North Carolina State University, a single electric scooter will emit about 202 g of CO2 per km over the course of its entire life cycle. This is higher than the carbon emissions produced by an electric car.
Well over half of these carbon emissions come from the manufacturing process, rather than any fumes when in use as there are none.
Manufacturing processes include the production of all components, the production of batteries and transportation from factory to consumer.
Seeing that the vast majority of e-scooters are manufactured in China, transportation alone is bound to leave a heavy environmental footprint!
The second biggest problem has to do with charging. The same study found that around 43% of e-scooter greenhouse emissions come from recharging alone.
Now, keep in mind these figures mostly refer to the dockless scooters used for ride-sharing. These tend to have a much shorter life span and therefore require more recharging towards the end of their cycle.
Dockless city e-scooters must also be collected to be recharged, further contributing to transportation emissions! So called ‘juicers’, collect the scooters at night and recharge, before placing them back on the street.
When dealing with scooters bought for personal use, the vast majority of emissions come from their manufacturing process instead. This is especially true when it comes to the production of their batteries.
Batteries and mining pollution
In addition to the charging issue, the production of lithium-ion batteries alone accounts for the large majority of all manufacturing pollution. These batteries require huge amounts of energy to produce.
Depending on where you’re based, a good chunk of the electricity needed might come from renewable energy, but more likely than not, it will mostly come from fossil fuels.
The production of lithium-ion batteries also requires plenty of extracted materials, such as aluminium, lithium, copper, and cobalt, resulting in even more pollution and environmental harm to the ecosystems where mining takes place. I also discussed this in my blog on electric bikes and their environmental impact.
What about recycling electric scooters?
Finally, there’s the life cycle issue.
Many e-scooters, and especially dockless scooters, have an estimated average lifespan of barely one year. Yep, just 12 months. This means that all the production and charging emissions associated with them become even more severe.
Compared to cars averaging over 180,000 miles before breaking down, the average e-scooter will only last a few hundred miles of use, without being able to offset any of its emissions with prolonged use.
In the case of dockless city scooters, this is largely due to rampant vandalism, but in the case of personal e-scooters, this could also be due to shoddy manufacturing and inadequate maintenance.
And on that note, what happens when e-scooters reach the end of their lives?
The only way to recycle all components is to get in touch with a specialised recycling facility that deals with electronics. Such facilities will be able to dismantle the scooter and give all parts, from LED lights to copper, a new life. Electronic waste is a big issue and is only going to get worse, which makes recycling e-waste very important.
Lithium-ion batteries can also be recycled, yet the large majority of recyclers focus on salvaging the metallic components only.
A not so sustainable point with batteries is that it is far more expensive to recycle the entire battery than mining for a new one.
However, these specialised recycling facilities are not too easy to come by. In the case of dockless scooters, you’ll have to do your research to find out whether the ride-sharing company is disposing of all materials sustainably.
So, are e-scooters good for the environment?
What’s the verdict then, are e-scooters eco-friendly?
If we were to picture all major forms of transportation in a graph, electric scooters would fare much better on sustainability compared to petrol and diesel cars. You’d hope this was a given.
But the kicker is that they would be far less sustainable than electric bikes or even electric cars. This is mainly due to the carbon emissions of manufacturing, high charging needs and short lifespan.
For the time being, we should be careful when marketing e-scooters as a green, eco friendly option.
However, we might be able to offset their emissions by increasing the lifespan of electric scooters and using renewable energy only to manufacture and charge them. Let’s hope the industry can continue to develop and make these good pieces of kit more sustainable.
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