In the few years since its advent, the electric vehicle industry has garnered support from environmentalists and automotive enthusiasts alike who have faith that this new technology will spearhead a societal shift toward sustainability. On the surface, electric vehicles seem to have no downsides. Vehicles that run solely on battery power without the use of fossil fuels could theoretically do nothing but good for our environment. The overwhelmingly positive public perception of electric vehicles has led many existing automotive manufacturers to “go green” and begin the process of switching to electric. In addition, a number of startup companies such as Rivian and Fisker have received large scale funding from investors who see a future without fossil fuels.
While the use of electric vehicles carries virtually no environmental impact, the real carbon footprint of electric vehicles comes from the manufacturing processes employed to make certain essential parts— namely, the production of lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion batteries, as the name suggests, require several raw materials such as lithium and cobalt to conduct their energy. Not only are these non-renewable minerals scarcer than most, the mining techniques used to extract them produce a myriad of environmental and ethical complications. These mining methods often pollute the surrounding environment with toxic chemicals and aerosols. They also perpetuate dangerous working conditions and child labor in developing countries. If electric vehicle manufacturers truly want their product to be as sustainable as they claim, they must take steps toward one of three available solutions: find alternative power sources to the li-ion battery, more sustainable ways to mine lithium and cobalt, or ways to recycle these materials so that further mining is greatly decreased. These companies must ensure that their manufacturing processes reflect their mottos and take the needed steps to change them.
As the main component of the li-ion battery, and the material for which it is named, lithium comprises a large amount of the li-ion’s chemistry. In every electric vehicle resides roughly twenty-two pounds of lithium, with one whole ton of the substance producing only about ninety electric vehicles. To build a substantial amount (one million vehicles), a company would need 60,000 tons of lithium carbonate, or LCE (Root, Barrons). Much of this lithium is mined in South America’s “lithium triangle”: a mineral-rich area between Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. To extract just one ton of lithium from this area requires 500,000 gallons of water, depriving local farmers of the most necessary component in agriculture (McFadden, Interesting Engineering). The water is used to extract lithium from salt flats by drawing their mineral-rich waters to surface level evaporation pools which filter out the precious material. These pools are often left unsealed and leak toxic substances into the surrounding water supply. One such case of this unchecked pollution occurred in the Tibetan Lichu River in 2016, when a Chinese mining company working for Beijing’s Green Development Plan leaked hydrochloric and sulfuric acids into the river, decimating the river’s wildlife for a substantial amount of time. This event sparked outrage among Tibetan environmentalists, who protested the company’s destructive activity in their region (Palden).
Unfortunately for these protestors, and protesters worldwide, lithium mining constitutes a multi-billion-dollar industry, where a few large multinational corporations backed by imperialist nations such as the United States have a de facto monopoly on the mineral. In fact, there are three companies—Livent (LTHM), Albemarle (ALB), and SQM (SQM)—that account for half of the global supply (Root). These companies operate with relatively little regulation and exploit that free reign to impose their will upon the developing nations from whom they reap the profits. These lithium companies must be held accountable by vehicle manufacturers, even if that accountability involves pricier extraction methods or the abandonment of lithium all together.
Cobalt, the secondary conductor in li-ion batteries, is relatively easy to extract and sell. However, this mineral’s ease of extraction has led companies to cut corners in their mining processes in order to lower costs of production. Cobalt mining companies often obtain their resources from “artisanal mines,” which the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative defines as “formal or informal mining operations with predominantly simplified forms of exploration, extraction, processing and transportation. ASM is normally low capital intensive and uses high labor-intensive technology” (”Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining”). In simplified terms, this means fewer machines and more human labor, but companies often take these artisanal mines to the extreme by outsourcing labor to developing countries with fewer wage and worker safety laws. To increase their profits, companies conduct wildly unsafe mines with little regard for their workers or the environment. Many artisanal mines even take advantage of unenforced child labor regulations in developing countries, conscripting children to extract the raw cobalt by hand with no protective equipment whatsoever. As Professor Dorothée Baumann-Pauly notes:
More than 70 percent of the world’s cobalt is produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and 15 to 30 percent of the Congolese cobalt is produced by artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). For years, human rights groups have documented severe human rights issues in mining operations. These human rights risks are particularly high in artisanal mines in the DRC, a country weakened by violent ethnic conflict, Ebola, and high levels of corruption. Child labor, fatal accidents, and violent clashes between artisanal miners and security personnel of large mining firms are recurrent. (Campbell)
In addition to cobalt mining’s numerous human rights violations, both artisanal and large scale mines produce environmental hazards that devastate surrounding communities and ecosystems. These unregulated open-air mines generate airborne particulate matter containing toxic and even radioactive substances like uranium which, when released into the air, has been known to cause vision problems, vomiting and nausea, heart problems, and thyroid damage. Breathing in this particulate matter for extended periods of time can result in asthma, pneumonia, and even cancer (McFadden).
Besides uranium, cobalt mining sites often contain sulfurous materials that form sulfuric acids when exposed to air or water. When this acid comes in contact with aquatic ecosystems such as nearby rivers, it can destroy all potential for life for a very long time (McFadden). From the rivers, sulfuric acid will then spread to the soil, contaminating its fruit and plants, thus contaminating the animals that eat them (McFadden). Although cobalt is technically easier to extract and produce than lithium, the implications of its mining processes are arguably more devastating to both humans and the environment around them. Its immediate sickness and cancer-causing effects present an even greater danger when children are exposed to these toxins without proper training or equipment and significantly weaker immune systems than adults. Even those who escape the conscription of the cobalt mining business are affected, as their fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish are all contaminated with sulfur and uranium, causing mass sickness and a malnourished population. These cobalt mines cannot simply be shut down, as they provide jobs for the impoverished populations of developing countries. However, companies cannot claim to care about providing these people with a lifeline when they are put in imminent danger every time they go to work.
At this point, the environmental and societal transgressions of the li-ion battery may seem irredeemable. However, if companies are willing to forgo cutting corners for profit, there are many possible solutions that can improve the sustainability and mitigate unfortunate byproducts of these minerals. One such solution is recycling. In a recent research study from the Australian National University, Matthew Doolan and Anna Boyden assess the effectiveness of three different methods of recycling lithium, finding the issue much more volatile than they previously thought. While choosing the correct method for lithium recycling proved extremely beneficial, the researchers also found that choosing the wrong approach could actually “increase the environmental impact of dealing with the batteries at the end of their life” (Doolan and Boyden 56). The study considers the three commercially available forms of lithium recycling: mechanical, pyrometallurgical, and hydrometallurgical.
The most straightforward of the techniques is mechanical recycling, in which components such as lithium are physically removed from the battery by shredding or crushing it. From there, the fragments of the battery can be sorted by material through the use of liquid or magnets. This method is quite effective at retrieving all of the needed material from the battery, but runs the risk of cross-contamination between materials. Despite this risk, mechanical recycling is the only process which can recover organic materials such as plastic, while the other two methods leave only the lithium and other inorganic minerals to be salvaged. Thus, the researchers found the mechanical recycling process to have the least environmental impact and highest effectiveness. As the demand for lithium grows every year, Doolan and Boyden call for the large-scale adoption of lithium recycling as a means to reduce and hopefully eliminate the need for future mining.
The other option, which many companies have announced their intentions to endorse, is the abandonment of lithium and cobalt all together. Companies switching their battery composition toward other materials will not completely eliminate the harm that lithium and cobalt cause. However, the mining processes for these alternative materials are much less destructive, and the materials are significantly less rare. In July 2021, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced his plans to cut down on the amount of lithium in his batteries by switching to lithium-iron-phosphate cells (LFPs.) He also stated that in the future he would like for Tesla’s battery composition to be roughly two-thirds iron-based and one-third nickel-based across its products (Alamalhodaei). Aria Alamalhodaei notes that Elon is not the only EV manufacturer who wants change, stating that:
Musk’s comments reflect a change that is already underway within the automotive sector, mainly in China. Battery chemistries outside of China have been predominantly nickel-based—specifically nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) and nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA). These newer chemistries have become attractive to automakers due to their higher energy density, letting original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) improve the range of their batteries. (Alamalhodaei)
The adoption of other battery compositions among EV companies, along with the possible large-scale integration of lithium recycling, has the potential to change the automotive industry for the better. If the electric vehicle industry can truly manage to reduce both their environmental and ethical impacts, they will set the gold standard for sustainable business models and the products they produce.
Although they seem reliable and safe for the environment, electric vehicles produce a myriad of ethical and environmental harms through the processes used to extract key components of their batteries. Both EV manufacturers and mining companies must be held accountable for this exploitation, as they enable each other through their continuing efforts to decrease cost of production and put more people at risk.
We must demand change from these organizations. The solutions to sustainable and ethical EV production are well within reach, but will require more effort and spending from manufacturers and mining companies. Until these organizations decide to put forth the proper funding and research to adopt these practices, the electric vehicles will remain just as harmful as their gas-fueled competitors.
Alamalhodaei, Aria. “What Tesla’s Bet on Iron-Based Batteries Means for Manufacturers.” TechCrunch, 28 July 2021, techcrunch.com/2021/07/28/what-teslas-bet-on-iron-based-batteries-means-for-manufacturers/.
Ahmad, Samar. “The Lithium Triangle: Where Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia Meet.” Harvard International Review, 41.1 (2020): 51-53, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26917284.
Campbell, John. “Why Cobalt Mining in the DRC Needs Urgent Attention.” Council on Foreign Relations, 29 Oct. 2020, www.cfr.org/blog/why-cobalt-mining-drc-needs-urgent-attention.
Doolan, Matthew, and Anna Boyden. “Recycling Analysis: Options for Lithium Batteries.” ReNew: Technology for a Sustainable Future 137 (2016): 56-57, https://www.jstor.org/stable/renetechsustfutu.137.56.
“Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining.” Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), https://eiti.org/artisanal-and-small-scale-mining.
McFadden, Christopher. “The Paradox of ‘Clean’ EVs and the ‘Dirty’ Lithium Mining Business.” Interesting Engineering, 10 Apr. 2021, interestingengineering.com/clean-evs-and-dirty-lithium-mining-business.
Palden, Tenzin. “Lichu River Poisoned – Case of Minyak Lhagang Lithium Mine Protest.” Tibet Nature, Tibet Natural Environment Conservation Network, 9 June 2016, tibetnature.net/en/lichu-river-poisoned-case-minyak-lhagang-lithium-mine-protest/.
Root, Al. “Why Lithium Could Be a New Risk for Tesla and Other Electric-Vehicle Makers.” Barron’s, 1 Oct. 2020, www.barrons.com/articles/new-risk-tesla-other-electric-vehicle-makers-lithium-supply-batteries-51601498472.
About the Author
Jacob Gouveia is a first-year student at Fordham University who is majoring in Philosophy. Originally from a small town in Rhode Island, Jacob loves New York City for its diversity of ideas. He enjoys storytelling through both written and visual mediums and hopes to one day write and direct his own films. Other hobbies of his include surfing, hiking, and anything outdoors.