By Maria Rabino-Neira
E-scooters have taken off. But what are the ethical dilemmas in their supply chain and in consumers’ wellbeing?
The promise of globalisation has been to bring a win-win situation to the new interconnected world; consumers in developed countries were going to access products at affordable prices, and the people in developing countries were going to be given jobs that bring the opportunity to work their way out of poverty. However, many interconnections and supply-chains remain unseen to consumers in the global market, and electric scooters (or e-scooters) are not the exception.
As the report from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) explains, electric scooters were initially designed for private consumers to use with the purpose to improve congested cities. Consumers were so excited about the new “sustainable and environmentally friendly” opportunity that would avoid the consumption of fossil fuels, decrease the CO2 emissions and increase citizens wellbeing, that the demand on shared-scooters increased by 276% since last year in Auckland.
However, if they are so good, why have some cities banned their use? Even though electric scooters’ performance and durability are affected by the way consumers use them, private companies saw a great opportunity in the shared-mobility market and they were not willing to dismiss scooters from this opportunity. This has led many cities to new problems they didn’t have before, like transnational human rights violations, the lack of end-of-life recycling process or circulation accidents that didn’t exist before, with pedestrians.
Now that researchers have produced data that can prove and track the costs, pollution and benefits of e-scooters for our health and environmental systems in concentrated cities, we are at a critical point where we -as consumers- need to confront a key ethical dilemma. Are we willing to support an industry which might bring benefits to fewer individuals knowing that the manufacturing process isn’t sustainable? And if so, how sure are we of those significant improvements in our wellbeing? Since there are not many policies or examples similar to Auckland or Christchurch realities on how to incorporate sharing-scooters systems, it is very likely that the answers to these questions will differ depending on the personal interest, cultural backgrounds and community ownership of the consumers.
What cannot be denied is the fact that private companies have created several assumptions on sharing-scooters among consumers to make it a profitable business. The first one is related to the assumption that electric vehicles are climate-friendly because they don’t consume fossil fuels, and the second assumption, is related to the idea that scooter-sharing systems are turning people away from using private vehicles.
Whether these assumptions are true or not, we have to ask uncomfortable questions if we want to know if we are increasing people’s quality of health and protecting the environment from climate change effects, or maybe doing the opposite. In this interconnected world, it isn’t enough to avoid fossil fuels consumption and decrease greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in one place, and then assume that something is sustainable.
The aim of this blog is not to cover the entire supply chain of electric scooters but to expand the scope of information that consumers might take into consideration when utilising the scooter-sharing system in some cities of New Zealand.
First stage: Human right violation behind lithium batteries
If we start thinking about where a scooter’s life begins, probably not many will think about labour exploitation, child soldiers and armed conflicts. However, this is the reality of tens of thousands of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and in Bolivia where natural metals are extracted every day to satisfy the increasing demand for lithium and cobalt that are essential components of batteries.
Industries usually prefer lithium and cobalt metals to produce batteries because they have half the weight of other batteries (like nickel or sealed-lead-acid based batteries) and are more resistant to high temperatures. These mineral markets have reinforced the idea that producers could sell “better and high-quality goods” to first-world countries by transferring the health and environmental cost to developing countries, so it generates significant profits to private business.
As the Vice-President of Bolivia referred to the labour exploitation in the Uyuni salt flat extractions – where 17% of the world lithium reserves are concentrated – , “All Bolivians will benefit…taking them out of poverty, guaranteeing their stability in the middle class, and training them in scientific and technological fields so that they become part of the intelligentsia in the global economy”, but at what price?
Unfortunately, some of these countries live with standardising corruption, low levels of education and structural poverty that make those promises of progress hardly to be delivered into local communities. As Amnesty International reported about the mine’s situation in DRC, local governments are not only failing in protecting and empowering local communities but actually they are exploiting their own people in terrible conditions.
Beyond these human rights violations, cobalt mining is also polluting the water that local communities consume. As a result of airborne lead particles, or direct wastewater discharge from mines into local waterways, local populations have reported several birth defects or even children’s death in their communities. This is why we need to think about short and long-term sustainable solutions that can take into consideration the impact on the environment and the health effects that occur as a result of the production of batteries utilised for electric-scooters.
Second stage: Hiding emissions behind the scheme
If we move to a second stage on the scheme production, we’ll realise that once the e-scooters are in the streets ready to be used as part of a scooter-sharing system , they will be spread all around Auckland, Christchurch or Wellington to be picked up and dropped off wherever it works best for the users. This misleads users to a second assumption: people are tending to swap private cars for communitarian free-fuels transport, right?
It is true that scooters provide a solution to the “last-mile problem” while reducing car traffic in crowded cities. This issue relates to the fact that public transportation usually does not take people exactly where we need to go, so we will always have a distance -generally about a mile or km- left, that residents need to figure out, tending to fix with an Uber or choosing private transport over public transport. Nevertheless, if you use a shared-scooter, you will get to the exact place without hindering traffic, which will increase your wellbeing.
However, a recent study on carbon emissions produced by electric scooters put an estimate of 3.7 kg of CO2 per lifetime scooter-mile, which explains why the lifetime of e-scooters is a relevant factor when considering CO2 emissions – “the longer the scooter lasts, the lower the manufacturing-related emissions per km you travel” (Johnston 2019)-. If we add the emissions produced during the manufacturing scheme (which probably involves assembling pieces from different parts of the world) and the GHG issued when the scooters are allocated for the first time in different cities; probably the sharing system will not look as green as business claimed.
In addition, we need to take into consideration the emissions linked to the activity of the well-known “juicers”, which are contractors in vehicles run by petrol that pick up the scooters when they need to be recharged, repaired, reallocated or removed from the market. As Johnston explains, those CO2 emissions make the shareable-system more inefficient as it can increase pollution by 33%. Basically, all this movement of energy increases exponentially the GHG that need to be allocated to the use of the electric scooters.
Another important factor to contemplate is the energy source that each country is using to feed those scooters’ batteries. We also need to see the volume of emissions to measure the energy that was generated in a country. In the New Zealand (NZ) case, electricity is quite clean as almost 83% of it is produced with renewable resources such as hydroelectric, wind and geothermal energy. But this is not the reality in countries like the United States where much of the electricity is generated with steam turbines using fossil fuels and nuclear power plants.
But the big question here should be on whether all that extra energy is being allocated in the correct place? From what we saw in the previous numbers, it doesn’t seem that people are shifting to environmentally friendly transports, neither that traffic congestion is being reduced. As the specialist in BCG’s reports explains, the big question is whether e-scooters can overcome these hurdles and be a sustainable option for urban micromobility. The truth is that only very few cities are demanding sharing-mobility companies to record data that can reflect a real understanding of the environmental impact that electric scooters are generating versus the traffic benefits they could produce.
One of those exemptions is Louisville in Kentucky, United States, where a study led by the website “Oversharing” estimates that e-scooters only live an average of 23 days, with an average use of 18 minutes to cover 1.63 miles, and an average of 3.49 rides per day. Now, this might -or might not- be relevant for the situation in New Zealand, but it is clear that most councils in Aotearoa are not demanding companies to provide accurate data on the durability of the products or the environmental effects these are having in our communities.
Third stage: weak national policies on data collection
In September 2018, Auckland Council developed a Code of Practice for share-scooters in Auckland city. Even though the code stipulates some regulations for operators, like “not compromise the maintenance of orderly streets or have a negative impact on other street users” or the fact “that anonymised data collected by the operator is shared with Auckland Council”, there no specific demands for companies to report on the health and environmental effects that they are producing. This policy should include the recording of CO2 emissions– which should include direct and indirect emissions of the full use scheme-, and add the health cost for injuries produce by scooters’ accidents claimed to ACC. In only three months, ACC reported paying more than $200,000 for electric-scooter related injury claims. We need clear policies that keep share-scooters companies accountable for their costs and effects to communities’ wellbeing.
Cities like Paris or Atlanta, on the other hand, have banned the electric scooters from their own cities because of the overcrowded situation scooters generated, as the Mayor of Paris expressed, “It’s not far from anarchy and it’s extremely difficult for a city like ours to manage this kind of service”. Local governments are trying to sort out traffic rules, parking areas, permits and public safety but this seems to be a big challenge without a fast sustainable answer.
As well, any future policy needs to incorporate an “end-of-life stage” into the analysis scheme. Consumers tend to use a product and link their responsibility from the moment they have the e-scooter with them and until they get rid of it. However, we know there is a long journey between our bins and the sustainable recycling plant. When the most popular sharing companies – like Lime, Bird or Wave – were asked about their end-of-life process, all of them explained they were “doing their best to recycle as much as possible”, but none of them had a compulsory recovery stage for the pieces that are out of service and a sustainable process in place to deal with the lithium batteries.
As consumers, we have the power to make informed and sustainable decisions that don’t compromise the wellbeing of future generations. In this era, we have the technology and means to achieve what globalisation promises. Nevertheless, we are facing the worst climate crisis in history, and we are living in a time of extreme inequality. Science has even proved that climate damage is getting to such an irreversible point that humans will need to focus their efforts on regenerative development.
As our supply chains are becoming more interconnected and complex than ever before, and many social and environmental issues are linked to unsustainable production of goods and services, we need to make better decisions as consumers. We can’t afford to keep on thinking that things are sustainable only because their effects and manufacture occur out of sight from where they are consumed. Offsetting CO2 emissions related to scooter use only addresses a small part of the puzzle. Authentic action needs to include not only use, but durability, reparability, and juicing activities.
Conclusions: so what’s next?
As we have seen, there is more information and evidence that shows the health and environmental impact that e-scooters have in our communities. Which brings us back to our ethical questions, are e-scooters a sustainable option to resolve micromobility in congested cities in New Zealand? Of course, we can’t deny that the answer will vary according to each stakeholder’s ethical interests. However, there are fundamental principles that can guide us in taking the next steps as consumers.
Almost 30 years ago, the international community agreed in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development that the lack of scientific certainty cannot be an excuse for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. This has encouraged cities like Portland in the U.S.A, to incorporate ecological metrics that hold scooter companies accountable for their sustainable development and generate the fundamental data that are needed to integrate e-scooters in their cities. The goal is to conduct a full
“Life Cycle Assessment“, which looks into environmental impacts by collecting data on e-scooter lifetime, including the repairs and end-of life cycle. As Professor Shaheen shared, “Research is needed on the lifecycle environmental impacts of e-waste, not only for electric scooters but also for electric bicycles and electric vehicles”.
Another step that we can take as consumers is to reach out to our political representatives to promote a fair trade policy that puts in place the rules of the road to prevent accidents and infringements on pedestrians’ wellbeing, provide parking zones and estimate companies’ liability in the production scheme. Advocacy is a relevant action we can take as responsible consumers. Nearly all the major operators of e-scooters have announced their compromise to ruggedise their devices and extend the life span because of social media pressure.
Finally, there is a very simple thing everyone can do to start making this change possible: minimalism. This is an extended opportunity to question ourselves as consumers on what we need in our lives. Do materialist things lead to fulfilled lifestyles? Are we consuming more than is needed? Are there other ways to satisfy that need that are more sustainable? Perhaps we should not only care about making electric scooters, bicycles and cars more efficient but rather asking ourselves if we need them at all. Maybe walking or cycling can increase our wellbeing in a better way than technology is doing. So here is my invitation to a minimalist and slow-lifestyle life: less can be more.
In conclusion, if politicians are genuinely going to embrace the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, then a drastic change in consumption is needed to make informed decisions. Electric scooters and shared mobility systems can be part of the solution, but they need to be operated smartly and sustainably.
 Increased from 700 in October 2018 to 1875 devices by October 2019: https://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/107911180/the-lowdown-on-lime-scooters-new-zealands-newest-transport-trend & https://ourauckland.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/articles/news/2019/05/e-scooter-trial-20-new-operators-announced/
 Draper R., Interview with the vice president of Bolivia related to the extraction of lithium in the Salar of Uyuni, “This metal is powering today’s technology – at what price?”, available in the following link: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/02/lithium-is-fueling-technology-today-at-what-cost/
 Amnesty International U.S.A report on the extraction of colbat in RDC (2016:33).
 https://medium.com/thebeammagazine/cobalt-the-toxic-hazard-in-lithium-batteries-that-puts-profit-before-people-and-the-planet-ae5a63e0f57c & https://www.thebigq.org/2018/11/01/is-our-obsession-with-electric-mobility-driving-an-increase-in-lead-poisoning/
 Chester Energy and Policy, 2019, available: https://chesterenergyandpolicy.com/2019/01/28/its-a-bird-its-a-lime-its-dockless-scooters-but-can-these-electric-powered-mobility-options-be-considered-sustainable-using-life-cycle-analysis/
 Schellong D., Sadek P., Schatzberger C. and Barrack T. The Promise and Pitfalls of E-Scooter Sharing, 2019.BCG’s report Exhibit 2, available on the following link: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2019/promise-pitfalls-e-scooter-sharing.aspx https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-sustainable-e-scooters-brian-johnston/
 Principle 15 of Rio Declaration: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation, available in the following link: http://www.unesco.org/education/pdf/RIO_E.PDF
 Which it defines as “an assessment of environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product’s life from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling, according to the following link: https://ensia.com/articles/shareable-scooters-may-seem-sustainable-but-are-they-really/ & https://chesterenergyandpolicy.com/2019/01/28/its-a-bird-its-a-lime-its-dockless-scooters-but-can-these-electric-powered-mobility-options-be-considered-sustainable-using-life-cycle-analysis/
This article was prepared as part of a postgraduate course on Ethics and Governance in International Development directed by Professor Andreas Neef of the University of Auckland’s Development Studies programme.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author’s opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.