Electric Scooters: Not as Eco-Friendly as We Think
When our laziness does more harm than good to the environment
Wherever you are reading this article from, chances are e-scooters have already arrived in your neighborhood too. They certainly did in mine. In between a lockdown and the next, the biggest danger in going for a stroll in town, second to getting exposed to the infection, is being run over by one of those scooters whizzing by at the speed of light. One can’t even feel safe while standing on the sidewalk, as they are being used literally on any plane surface possible.
Eco-friendly on the surface…
Having escaped in the nick of time a certain crash with one of these XXI Century loose cannons, made me think if, despite being a threat to one’s personal safety, they would at least have a significant beneficial impact on the environment. If it had been so, I have promised myself I would have accepted the lesser evil (from the Planet viewpoint) of taking the risk of being run over by a e-scooter. After all, using eletrical power for transportation would seem, at first sight at least, a much better option than fossil fuels, responsible for the harmful emissions coming out of the cars’ exhaust pipes. In addition, if people choose to replace the cars with e-scooters, a significant drop in emissions would likely be seen in nowadays congested cities: not only the environment would benefit from it, but also our own lungs. In fact, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)
“The combustion of gasoline and diesel fuel in vehicle engines produces emissions of several potentially harmful substances. It appears that particulate matter (PM), a complex mixture of airborne solid particles and aerosols, is the component causing serious health effects, for example mortality due to cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer” — IARC
The problem of lung cancer is usually associated with smoking, although research has shown that lung cancer mortality from air pollution, associated with exposure to PM 2 and 5, is responsible for 60 000 deaths worldwide yearly. The number of deaths rises up to 700 000 if cardiac and non-malignant respiratory diseases from PM exposure are taken into account (Cohen, 2003).
…quite not the case in reality
From this perspective, it seems that for our health (crossing out the (real) risk of being run over) e-scooters may be a blessing: less cars roaming around, less PM particles we breath in. Also the environment would benefit from it, since air pollution is linked to the depletion of the ozon layer. It looks like the perfect situation where everyone wins: us and the environment. But we should know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And e-scooters are no exception to this.
As for any item we produce, environmental sustainability should be measured accounting for the whole life cycle. When it comes to e-scooters, the biggest share of CO2 emissions is linked to the vehicle construction (50%), followed by the battery recharging (43%). Furthermore, the short lifespan of e-scooters (about 1 year in optimum conditions), doesn’t counterbalance the negative impacts of the emissions deriving from their entire life cycle. In addition, in real life conditions, the e-scooter’s lifespan (since when it starts being used) is even shorter (about one month), mostly due to the misusage and lack of care people have towards these devices.
Overall, considering the whole lifespan of the e-scooter from cradle to grave, a study conducted by the North Carolina State University, pointed out a total of 202 g of CO2/km/passenger produced: a value not far from that of a conventional car and about 3,5 times higher than that of an electric car. Also the production of the batteries (mainly lithium-ion batteries made from “critical” minerals including cobalt, graphite, and lithium) leads to a considerable share of GHG emissions. As observed in a study by (H.C. Kim, et al.)
“the steps for extracting and processing critical minerals are responsible for approximately 20% of the total GHG emissions from battery production” — (H.C. Kim, et al.)
In addition, GHG emissions aside, no battery lives forever: even rechargeable batteries, once they have reached 40% of their original storage capacity, become unsuitable for providing the energy demand required for transportation. Once the battery has reached the end of its life cycle, it must be recycled. Disposal of old batteries on landfills would lead not only to the leaching of toxic chemicals into the ground, but also to the potential contamination of underground water.
Truth is….we are overly lazy
Environmental concerns aside, what is also puzzling is the way e-scooters are being used, most of the time to just cover a distance of a few meters as an alternative to walking. For many people, this also results in giving up on the only physical activity they do during the day. Furthermore, it is more likely that e-scooters are actually used by anyone not willing to cover a short distance on foot rather than as a replacement of the car, as there are way more comfortable means of transportation for longer distances, such as buses or the metro.
In the end, it seems that e-scooters are the best proof of the laziness of people, who refuse to walk (or cycle) the 500 meters distance between their houses and the bakery.
Cohen AJ (2003). Air pollution and lung cancer: what more do we need to know? Thorax, 58: 1010–1012. doi:10.1136/thorax.58.12.1010 PMID:14645959
H.C. Kim, et al., “Cradle-to-Gate Emissions from a Commercial Electric Vehicle Li-Ion Battery: A Comparative Analysis,” Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 50 (2016), pp. 7715–7722 (hereinafter Kim et al., 2016).