The electric Tesla may actually contribute to China’s pollution problem

| March 27, 2014

People often misuse the concept of situational irony. (We’re looking at you, Alanis Morissette.) Here’s a situation that is genuinely, authentically ironic: part of the manufacturing process for eco-friendly cars is creating a big environmental problem.

This is what’s happening: batteries designed for electric vehicles are (obviously) different from batteries designed for traditional, gas-powered vehicles. Graphite is a crucial component of electric vehicle batteries. Most of the graphite mining and processing for these batteries occurs in China.

Unfortunately, graphite mining and processing carries a wildly unpleasant side effect: pollution. A lot of pollution.

From randychiu.

The Tesla is touted as an environmentally-friendly, electric car, but are the batteries that make it run actually harming the environment? From randychiu.

Thus, while Americans are whizzing around in a Tesla or a plug-in Prius thinking that we’re rescuing the environment, the manufacturing process that brought us that vehicle is raining down pollution on the other side of the world.

And when I say “raining,” I mean it literally. Graphite pollution is causing “dirty rain” in a country that is already at the breaking point when it comes to pollution. According to a recent article by Elisabeth Behrmann in Bloomberg, graphite mining and processing in China “has fouled air and water, damaged crops and raised health concerns.”

What makes a sticky situation even stickier? Global demand for graphite-based batteries is on the rise — in a big way. Tesla’s sales have continued to beat expectations, and other car companies are scrambling to keep up. While China’s capabilities in this arena present a clear economic opportunity, the trade-off is pretty miserable.

Chinese officials have already made the decision that the trade-off isn’t worth it. They’ve shut down “dozens of graphite mines and processors” in an attempt to impede the ugly environmental impact. China has already faced newsworthy pollution (the Bloomberg article cites acid spills lead poisoning, and smog among the other culprits) and the graphite rain may have been the straw that broke the eco-camel’s back.

The decision to shut down graphite production may be good news for China’s air and water supply, but it’s definitely bad news for Tesla and Tesla’s potential customers. Losing those mines and processing facilities could “affect as much of a third of worldwide production” of these graphite-based batteries.

In response, Tesla has been forced to source new production opportunities. As Behrmann reports, Tesla’s Chief Executive Officer says the company is planning to drop $5 billion on a new battery factory. It would be the biggest operation of its kind in the world.

While Tesla’s giant factory will help with production, it doesn’t solve the problem of graphite mining. Reportedly, a long-unused mine in Australia will re-open to help meet some of the demand as China scales back mining efforts.

But will that be enough? And will moving mining to a different location simply shift the geography of the pollution problem?

I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last word on this issue.

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Category: Metal, Recycling programs

About the Author ()

Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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