Why the micromobility industry must address its own sustainability

While micromobility could be the answer to many environmental concerns, the industry must also address its own sustainability. Rebecca Bland explores how e-bike and e-scooter brands are looking in the mirror first

This piece first appeared in the September edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here

Sustainability is certainly a big buzzword, with companies rolling out sustainability plans and net zero ambitions, or introducing more sustainable manufacturing practices. It would be easy to assume that as the micromobility industry itself is doing ‘good’, by promoting active travel, their own practices need not be scrutinised.

Electric bicycles and scooters are prime examples of the advancement of technology promoting a more sustainable way to travel, but a closer look at the lifecycle of these products may warrant some concern. While the manufacturing of an e-bike or an e-scooter is complex, there are plenty of places to look for improvements to processes.

The carbon question
Gocycle, an electric bike brand founded in 2002 by former McLaren car designer Richard Thorpe, first utilised magnesium in its manufacturing as an alternative to more polluting frame materials, as Thorpe explains.

“I was pushing sustainability with the first Gocycles being made out of injection moulded magnesium, which produced less SF6 gases that hurt the ozone layer. The magnesium that we used at the time was an alternative to carbon fibre, which the industry is using a huge amount of. And although the industry has got better on the recycling and understanding the importance of recycling carbon fibre, it’s still a factor.”

While the more recent Gocycle models have begun to use carbon fibre in the mid-frame, a large portion of the bike including the PitstopWheels and Cleandrive still utilises magnesium, keeping the environmental impact of the manufacturing to a minimum.

Other micromobility brands such as Swedish e-scooter and e-bike shared transport company Voi have also begun to focus on sustainable practices beginning at the manufacturing level. While some may harbour criticisms of shared transport schemes, bringing to mind in particular the images of e-bikes piled high in landfills and plenty of vandalism and theft concerns, Voi is aiming to change the public perception and is embracing what it calls a “Circular Vehicle Programme”.

Scooting towards sustainability
Matthew Pencharz, head of public policy at Voi UK and Ireland, spoke of the launch of its most environmentally friendly vehicle to date, the Voiager 5.

“Our Circular Vehicle Programme aims to ensure we design, produce and use vehicles sustainably. Typifying our commitment to the circular economy is the recently launched Voiager 5 (V5).

“Designed from its very inception, the V5 vehicle is our most circular vehicle to date with 91% recyclable materials used in its construction (certified by our WEEE certification) and 30% recycled materials. Compared to our older V3 model, the new V5 uses three times the amount of recycled materials in its construction.”

While utilising recycled frame materials is certainly one way to boost the sustainability of the micromobility sector, the one thing the industry cannot escape from is the use of batteries. They are a fundamental part of the ‘electric’ movement, and while there are technologies under development like solid-state batteries, for example, the most dominant battery tech remains lithium-ion.

Containing some of the world’s most precious materials, the carbon dioxide production and damage to the environment created by mining these materials means that recycling lithium-ion batteries is paramount if the industry wishes to continue to use them. Pencharz explained how Voi is aiming to tackle recycling not just of batteries but other materials.

“In our warehouses, we’ve instigated zero-waste initiatives ranging from reducing packaging and avoiding the use of certain plastics to fully training all our warehouse staff in waste management. We strive to divert all waste from landfill and recycle and recirculate all materials elsewhere, by collaborating with local recycling experts.

“For example, in the UK, we have partnered with licensed specialist Lithium Battery Recycling Solutions (LBRS) to safely dismantle and recycle, in its state-of-the-art warehouse, our lithium-ion batteries when they have reached the end of their useful life.”

Gocycle, on the other hand, offers its consumers a large discount on replacement batteries for their e-bikes if they recycle them.

“We have a standard clause in our owner’s manual that says ‘within three to five years you should recycle your lithium battery pack’, and we offer people a substantial discount on buying a new lithium battery to help them get on with the latest technology because batteries change all the time – and also to make sure that there’s a commitment there to recycling.”

One could argue that the Government or industry should do more to promote battery recycling. The UK has had Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment recycling (WEEE) regulations in place in 2013, to reduce the amount of electronic waste being incinerated or sent to landfill sites.

While it may be known industry-wide, Thorpe highlighted that educating consumers is key to getting any traction in safe battery recycling.

“I think the Government and industry are fairly well set up for recycling. The WEEE initiative for electrical waste has been around for more than a decade. In terms of lithium battery recycling, I would quite easily say the Government has been so far behind the move to electric, they’re not establishing, for example, a Gigafactory type battery cell and battery pack maker in the UK – they’re so far behind on that, therefore, they haven’t really got to grips with recycling centres for lithium cells. Europe is further ahead because they’ve been producing cells in Europe.

“As far as the regulations go, they’ve been there for quite some time. What’s missing is consumer awareness, because really, if the consumer doesn’t care, they’re not going to recycle anything. On top of the safety implications of people storing lithium batteries for a decade in their attic, they are all made of the world’s most precious materials. I think that the private sector is going to take off in terms of recycling. But the problem rests with the education and awareness at the consumer level.”

As the move towards electric micromobility and the use of lithium batteries continues, there is hope that brands are recognising the impact they have and will seek to improve their sustainability in both manufacturing and product lifecycle.

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