Electric vehicles (EVs) have long been a hot topic in the sustainable technology sector since Tesla’s first model release in 2012 and their climb to fame and global success (as #1 best selling EV) in 2015. Lately, however, EV users are gaining more criticism for helping emit greenhouse gases and destroy the planet just like traditional gasoline-fueled cars–only, the benefit for EV owners is the “out of sight, out of mind” principle, where their cars and its parts are being manufacturing in plants that generate pollution just like that of any other car manufacturer. That is not to mention the process of lithium mining and the harvesting of compounds that are nonrenewable (meaning we have a finite supply of lithium reserves, which are being mined and consumed rapidly by EV companies).
While much of this chiding criticism is largely exaggerated and perhaps, in part, rooted in some sort of hierarchical status resentment, there is certainly room for improvement on the path to sustainability in EVs. That is not to say that EVs aren’t overarchingly the most sustainable vehicle option on the market right now (because, for the most part, they are), but it is to say that some of the aforementioned criticism may be rooted in truth. How can we go about optimizing sustainability in our already sustainable electric vehicles (and, further, how do we accurately educate the public about the relative greenness of their options)?
How do EVs pose threats to the environment if that’s entirely the opposite of what they are designed to do? For starters, cobalt and lithium are essential components of the batteries in EVs, which the earth carries limited reserves of to be mined. Mining in and of itself can pose negative externalities in terms of emissions and the disturbance of wildlife (thus hindering biodiversity and habitat safety). Not only are lithium and cobalt unsustainably harvested, but more often than not, they end up in landfills at the end of their lifetime just to leach out toxic heavy metals that pollute the surrounding environment, making it less safe for people and wildlife.
How much are EVs actually reducing emissions on a large scale? While that is precisely their endgame as a whole, reaching a net zero emission automobile industry would require 300 million EVs by the end of the decade in 2030. This means that about 60% of all cars sold would have to be electric. Although EVs are gradually becoming more accessible, affordable, and commonplace for many people, most EVs (especially the higher end options by Tesla and other luxury vehicle companies) are still not widely feasible to the general population.
That is not to say that we should lose hope and slow the rising momentum of electric vehicle popularity–there is certainly a lot of merit and potential for true sustainable practices as it relates to EVs. One crucial step to making these green vehicles even more green is by recycling those lithium ion batteries on a large scale. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), only 5% of batteries from electric vehicles were being recycled at all in 2019. Currently, the way in which these batteries are made makes recycling them very difficult. This is where a circular economy might come into play–when manufacturers design and process products that are innately easy to recycle later down the line, that creates the incentive for the company to employ infrastructure that allows their products to be recycled since it requires less effort on their end while making it look good.
Written by Carole Wilay (‘25)