To plug or not to plug: Environmentally Ethical Cars 

Sabrina Holmes, Staff Writer

I’m sure that almost all of us have heard someone say in response to a conversation about cars, that they “drive a Tesla or Nissan Leaf” and that they are “most definitely a better person and driver than you because they care about the environment and you don’t”. Everyone looks at them with mild annoyance, because after all just because someone drives an electric car does not necessarily mean that they are really keeping track of their environmental impact.  

Electric vehicles are presented as being an environmentally friendly alternative to gas powered cars. Electric vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions and produce fewer greenhouse gasses than gas-powered vehicles. While it is important to consider the positive environmental impacts of Electric and Hybrid vehicles, it is also important to consider (and for many, reconsider) the possible negative environmental impacts that these vehicles have. 

The problem with electric vehicles does not lie in the vehicles themselves but rather in the batteries that make them electric. The lithium ion battery was developed in 1985 by Japanese chemist Akira Yoshino and was later commercialized in 1991. The lithium ion battery uses a combination of lithium, copper, nickel and cobalt, all of which are non-renewable resources. 

China currently dominates the lithium ion industry, accounting for 60% of the world’s lithium supply. Being both the largest consumer and producer of these batteries they are able to use their abundance of natural resources combined with government investing in foreign companies  and cheap labor to further exacerbate their hold on global lithium production. 

Mining lithium presents a whole slew of environmental problems ranging from loss of biodiversity to an increase in global warming. According to Dragonfly energy corp, an American based manufacturer of lithium ion batteries, it takes about 2.2 million liters of water to produce 1 ton of lithium, which can have catastrophic effects on the environment. For instance, most lithium mining is done in the flats of South America where it uses about 65% of the area’s water reserves. In a place that gets only 2 inches of rain per year, that is a lot.

As the demand increases for these materials, many companies are considering the possible environmental impacts that mining will have on the planet. 

According to copper is the third most used metal on the planet, it is found in Chile, Zambia, Kazakhstan and Canada. Copper is mined using an open pit method, where large holes are dug into the ground with slopes that look like staircases. These staircases allow heavy machinery to pass on top of them without collapsing. Inside of this pit heavy machines drill holes into the rock. Then explosives are used to create “boulders” out of this stone and those are sent away to a processing facility where copper is extracted. 

Open pit mines can be up to a mile in diameter and up to 1,000 feet deep, in order to have a mine that size a significant amount of forest and soil must be removed. This leads to many environmental problems such as loss of wildlife and rapid soil erosion. Copper mining also leads to water pollution as copper acid is released into the water, this harms local wildlife and farmland. According to part of the reason that the water around these mines  gets polluted so quickly is because for every 1 ton of copper removed, there is 99 tons of waste removal. 

Mining copper can also be harmful to human health, exposing miners to toxic chemicals that harm skin, eyes and lungs. Some copper is important for human health however an excess amount can be fatal. 

Lithium and copper are often mined in more developed countries, with better working conditions and pay for workers. However this is not the case with a large amount of cobalt being produced. 

According to an article published by the The Washington Post in 2016, 60% of the worlds cobalt originates in Congo– a country in Africa with a long history of corruption and foreign manipulation of its natural resources– then it is cycled through a series of multiple companies and ends up in phone batteries and lithium ion batteries. 

Chinese company Congo DongFang International Mining is a subset of one of the largest cobalt producers, known as Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt. This company has provided some of the largest battery makers with cobalt and has a long history of human rights abuses and the use of child labour to supply cobalt as the demand for the material increases. 

Miners often dig holes by hand, without proper equipment or safety gear or maps. They are paid based on the materials that they find, and the money they receive is often only $2 or $3 on a good day. Without proper safety gear the threat of cave-ins and other possible health risks is imminent, and when miners get hurt they are often left on their own, the companies that are buying the materials rarely, if ever, lend aid.  

As the demand for electric vehicles increases, and more companies attempt to get a foot through the very small door that is raw-material mining they must consider the impacts that this could be having on both the environment and the people who actually obtain these materials. 

Despite many environmental concerns regarding electric vehicles, at the end of the day it is still better to drive an electric vehicle because at the end of the day, the negative impact of the EV  manufacturing process is largely outweighed by the long-term use of these vehicles by the individual user.

While electric vehicles are generally deemed to be a safer option than gas-powered cars,  they are not the end all be all to lessening one’s carbon footprint.