eBikes are eco-friendly. Their batteries are a different story

Photo Courtesy of Jackie Sedley.

Cities like Denver and Boulder have been offering financial incentives to get residents out of their cars and onto eBikes. Now the state of Colorado has jumped on board, to take the eBike rebate program statewide. While pedal-assisted electric bicycles are more environmentally conscious than gas-powered cars in practice, their batteries do leave a footprint. KGNU and Report for America’s Jackie Sedley has more.

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    eBikes are eco-friendly. Their batteries are a different story Jackie Sedley

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With state and local incentives to get more Colorado residents onto eBikes on the rise, bike shop owners, eBike riders, and environmentalists are all looking for the best ways to rid of batteries once they have passed their prime.

Colorado’s local bike shops are already finding themselves in the middle of this complicated recycling stream.

May Blueotter is the general manager of Small Planet eBikes in Longmont. She says they rely on outsourcing when customers come in constantly asking for help with recycling or refurbishing their lithium-ion batteries.

“We kind of fall on High C or Call2Recycle or Batteries Plus to do our recycling for us because we have no avenue at this moment that doesn’t cost us a large amount of money,” says Blueotter. “Whether it’s with shipping…or if it’s with pickup and drop off because usually we cover the cost of that pickup and drop off, which means we have to pay for not only the gas of the vehicle that we’re driving, which is the van, but we also have to pay for the time that that person, that employee, is taking and that’s taking people away from our shop, which would not be a problem if we weren’t a small local business, but that’s where the issue comes in.”

Still, Blueotter does what she can to help folks with battery-related questions. Blueotter is a trained geologist, and as a result, understands some of the more complicated parts of lithium-ion batteries.

“With overcharging lithium, if your battery management system is not working correctly, your battery will get super excited. Keeping it plugged in,” Blueotter explains. “It’s just going to take on that energy, take on that energy. And eventually, it’s going to expand and, um, your battery will basically burp and it will be unusable.

She says that, as with cell phones, four to six hours is plenty and that charging for more than eight hours at a time can reduce overall battery life. Exposure to extreme temperatures can also wear batteries out faster. 

Over in Boulder, at the Boulder BCycle bike sharing program, General Manager Kevin Crouse says that the organization has invested in high-quality batteries that tend to have a longer lifespan and are generally more reliable. They cost more up-front, but Crouse says that was a conscientious investment made when transitioning to all-electric in 2021.

All bikes in the BCycle fleet have batteries mounted externally on a rear rack, as opposed to being installed internally. This makes it much easier to replace a battery without compromising the integrity of the entire bike. Some of the more affordable eBike models on the market have batteries embedded in the frames, meaning when the battery dies, the entire bike no longer functions as intended. 

“Most people are still buying an e-bike for the first time. They’re not yet several years down the road needing to replace the battery of the e-bike they bought,” says Crouse. “And my hope is that the more that e-bikes are familiar to the general public, the more people will think of its maintenance and repairability long term, as they’re making an up front purchase, and maybe choose something that hopefully is going to be able to go through 10 plus years of operation and perhaps multiple batteries in its lifetime.”

According to Crouse, the same amount of rare Earth minerals used to produce one electric vehicle can produce dozens, if not over one hundred, eBike batteries.

Crouse thinks that the more the bike industry as a whole embraces larger recycling programs, the easier it will be to incorporate that cost into the price of the bike up-front.

Call2Recycle is a well-known nonprofit in the eBike distributor community. It has thousands of battery drop-off locations across the United States and kickstarted a “Hungry for Batteries” campaign that focuses specifically on eBike battery disposal.

Eric Frederickson is the Vice President of Operations at Call2Recycle. He sees the barriers to eBike battery recycling and says his organization is working to break some of them down.

“If you have a large quantity of eBike batteries all at one location, it’s relatively simple to recycle them. You can just send a truckload to a recycler,” Frederickson explains. “When you’ve got batteries that are in the hands of consumers or the hands of bike shops, there’s a whole new degree of complexity, both from a transportation logistics standpoint, from a safety standpoint, and a compliance and regulations standpoint. That’s really Call2Recycling’s core competency is taking back things that are in the hands of consumers.”

He says there are not a lot of organizations doing broad take-back programs in the battery recycling space, and that there is generally more cost associated with re-aggregating batteries than there is in the value of the materials themselves.

He does not know of any other running programs that aid consumers in dropping off an eBike battery for recycling as Call2Recycle does. They have a network of nearly 1,900 bike shops, all of which are required to take a battery handling training before being taken into the Call2Recycling fold.

There’s been lots of stories lately about eBike battery fires. However according to Frederickson, eBikes can be stored indoors so long as the brand is reputable and servicing is left to qualified professionals.

Back at Small Planet eBikes, May Blueotter says bike shops can play a role in recycling batteries if given the resources, like in the form of grants.

“[Grants] would have to be on some form of state level, because Colorado’s, It’s vast, but it’s not big. It can happen. And if it’s not at the state level, the counties and cities are not going to get the support that they need for this system,” Blueotter says.

She hopes battery recycling initiatives continue to grow, especially for the environment’s sake.

“I’m from Utah, I’m Northern Ute. And as some of our upbringing in our culture, we’re keepers of the earth. I would love to see more sustainability and to see our skies a little bit brighter. And, see this lovely homeland of mine, you know, be taken care of.”

eBikes have taken center stage as Colorado continues to appear forward-thinking toward greener and more sustainable transportation options. Business owners and battery collection organizations alike agree it will take a collective effort to provide safer and more accessible methods of lithium-ion battery recycling, and that this is necessary for eBikes to become a standard method of transportation.

Support for KGNU’s Follow the Waste series comes from a grant from Boulder County’s Zero Waste Funding Program.

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    eBikes are eco-friendly. Their batteries are a different story Jackie Sedley

Jackie Sedley

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