“Get an Electric Car,” They Said, “It’s Good for the Planet,” They Said

Annalisa Kolb

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, J.D. 2023

The human impact on the environment has become increasingly more apparent, and more and more people intend to do their part to live a greener life. Over the past few years, governments and car manufacturers alike have been touting electric or hybrid cars as an easy switch anyone can make to do their part to fight emissions and climate change. Some states have even gone as far as offering financial incentives for driving hybrids or electric cars. But while electric vehicles may indeed have lower emissions than gas-powered cars overall, they are not exactly environmentally friendly either.

The dirty side of “clean” cars

The main difference between gas-powered cars and electric cars is how they perform the process of transforming potential energy into kinetic energy or stored energy into movement. Gas-powered cars create CO2 emissions by burning gasoline in a combustion engine to make the car start and move. On the other hand, electric cars can function without any CO2 emissions because they rely on lithium-ion batteries instead of the combustion engine. While not having to use any fossil fuels to run may seem like a greener alternative, electric vehicles are responsible for more environmental harm than most people think.

First, unless the electricity used to charge the electric cars comes from solar panels, wind turbines, or other natural electricity harvesting methods, it also comes from burning fossil fuels in a power plant. For example, in Pittsburgh, the energy used to charge electric cars is being harvested from a nearby coal plant, which causes an immense amount of CO2 pollution.

The production of the lithium-ion batteries that power the vehicles contribute significantly to their greenhouse gas emissions as the raw materials in the batteries are mined from the earth. This makes manufacturing an electric vehicle more carbon-intensive and fifty percent more water-intensive than a gas-powered vehicle. Even more concerning is the question of what to do with the lithium-ion batteries once the electric car is no longer in use.   

Why recycling the batteries is a problem

Even though lithium-ion batteries are made up of many valuable and recyclable materials, less than five percent of those batteries are currently being recycled in the U.S. Instead, most of these batteries end up in landfills, where they are likely to leak hazardous substances and contaminate groundwater. This is a stark comparison to the ninety-nine percent of lead-acid batteries, the ones used in gas-powered cars, that are recycled in the U.S.

According to Chemical and Engineering News, the low amount of recycled batteries is caused by a “chicken-and-egg problem”. Since manufacturers do not currently have a large-scale recycling solution, they focus their efforts on increasing battery longevity and capacity instead of recyclability. Because there is no standardization for lithium batteries, they vary significantly depending on the manufacturer, and each one needs to be disassembled in a particular manner. They are also not made to be recycled, so taking them apart takes skilled labor and is, therefore, cost-intensive.

Is Biden’s new law enough?

In December 2021, the Biden Administration announced the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law meant to “supercharge” America’s electric car use by making electric vehicles and charging stations cheaper and more widely accessible. The law also includes more than $7 billion in funds to support innovations in greener manufacturing and recycling of lithium-ion batteries. This includes $750 million allocated to re-equipping, expanding, or establishing an industrial or manufacturing facility that reduces emissions from the manufacturing process and $60 million allocated to improving the recycling process.

Clearly, President Biden has shown with this legislation that he is serious about meeting his goal of fifty percent electric vehicle sale shares by 2023, but is it enough? Stricter legislation should be passed that only allows manufacturers to produce a new electric vehicle if they have a plan to recycle the battery efficiently and effectively. Manufacturers must also change their mindsets and stop pushing out new models of electric vehicles for the sake of innovation and without thought to their environmental impact. The time is ripe for car manufacturers to take advantage of these massive funds and work with the federal government to create a standardization for lithium-ion batteries, making it easier to create a standardized recycling process and helping electric vehicles become the truly green alternative.