In short, mostly not, as they do not pollute all by themselves. The pollution comes through the processes of manufacture, maintenance and the waste they produce when thrown away. Thus, they pollute indirectly, not through direct usage.
A word of caution from the author. This comparison is done in relation to other more frequently addressed causes of pollution, such as petrol scooters, cars, buses, etc.
Thus, in order to properly analyze this issue, I shall split this discussion into two major parts. The effects e-scooters have on the general environment and the ones they have over traffic and public safety.
The first and foremost element that we would be presented in such a discussion would be their impact on the environment.
When thinking of electric scooters, we automatically assume that they are completely harmless to the environment. And to the untrained eye, it might be so, given how they lack fossil fuel consumption and don’t emit greenhouse gasses. But they are not as infallible as they might seem at first glance.
A study published by North Carolina State University (2019) has given an insight into the liability of e-scooters.
According to this study, the scooters all themselves, are not responsible for the pollution. They do not emit greenhouse gasses or add to vehicle congestion. They are silent and efficient. They require quite a small area of width to function, meaning that there is no need for choking infrastructure. So what could they do to produce pollution?
Well, it is not the scooters themselves, but the materials that they are made of and the process of manufacturing. Namely, the frame, the wheels and especially the batteries. This is also true when a model is thrown out into a garbage dump or when the e-scooter is returned to be refitted and resold.
This includes the transportation process from the seller to the retailer or the buyer directly. And since an overwhelming number of e-scooter models hail from China, it is surely not an incredibly clean process. This includes, to an overwhelming degree, the Chinese manufacturing processes which almost completely disregard international pollution norms and regulations.
According to official charts for the year 2019, China produces almost 30% of worldwide pollution. A good portion comes from car usage, but most of it represents pollution from manufacturing plants. Keep in mind, thus, that most of the pollution comes from the manufacturing country and not from the scooter itself. The same goes for spare parts. Keep in mind that China is not the sole producer of e-scooters. However, it is the most important one.
This is due to many cheap, yet unsustainable processes of production for the different materials or components. When it comes to e-scooters, you will have to take into consideration that the following materials are those that I am talking about. For each one of them, there is a complex and often polluting/unsustainable process of harvesting, processing, and usage. Those are:
- Petrol (plastics)
- Aluminum alloys
- Wiring boards
- Powder coats
- LED lights
- Frame and handles
- Other miscellaneous components
The manufacturing processes and transportation:
Every aforementioned item, be it raw material or component, needs to be extracted, processed and transported. But in order to be profitable, most extraction and manufacturing plants function in the traditional way. Even the transportation pollutes, though high consumption of fuel per km for trucks and ships.
Indirect pollution through energy consumption
The energy those scooters consume is an indirect pollutant all by itself. As we all know from “economics 101”, supply stimulates demand. And one of the most convenient commodities of today is the energy we consume. Not the caloric variety, but the electric sort. The one that your scooter conveniently demands in order to function.
The idea is that by riding your scooter, you require energy in constant supplies. This will make you consume even more energy than you do monthly, which in turn requires producers to up their supply. This is not as much of a problem now as it was, say, 100 years ago, when coal-based power-plants and dams were the main energy sources worldwide.
However, even with all the renewable energy sources out there, like solar and wind farms, coal power plants are still abundant. This is evident especially in countries such as the US, where coal power plants produce about 24% of the countries power. Afterward, there is the issue of nuclear energy, which people still argue against as being the most dangerous source.
The idea is that the more you ride your scooter, the more energy it consumes and the more you will have to acquire. And with such polluting methods still being used today, it is obvious how high energy consumption contributes indirectly to pollution. Your e-scooter might not pump out greenhouse gasses, but that coal power plant will do so without any brakes in mind.
To fully charge an average e-scooter like UScooter Booster, UScooter ECO or Xiaomi Mi M365 you will only consume about 0.33 kilowatts of power. Considering the 13.19 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) it means your e-scooter is taking you 4.x cents for a charge. And a charge will get you a 12-15 miles (15-20 km). Compare that to the cost of gas. (The kWh price is updated on August 2019 and it’s the average US price for a kWh).
Even if the energy is produced from non-regenerable sources, it still makes more sense to use an e-scooter.
Unless recycled, most waste goes into huge garbage dumps or even gets thrown into the oceans. The latter is obviously worse, since in not only pollutes the waters, but it also kills thousands of marine species.
Traffic and safety
Unless you live under a rock, you are aware of how many people have transitioned from cars to bikes, e-bikes, and e-scooters. This is due to economic, health or environmental related issues, sprung over the last decade. If so, you are familiar with how dangerous some cyclists have made lives for everyone involved during this period. Well, unfortunately, many e-scooter riders are starting to follow in their footsteps.
But before you burn me for this, keep in mind that I am referring to a select group of people. Namely, those who see themselves invincible and those around them just as liabilities. Yes, those people who ride in the middle of the street, who don’t respect red lights, circulation rules. Those people who would keep traffic frozen in order to have more room on the street.
And to gather such a reputation would be highly unfortunate since e-scooters are exactly what every chocked city requires. They are fast, don’t pollute (directly), silent and slim, allowing you to skip any jam-packed traffic without a hustle. However, this is where the problems begin.
For starters, when they are presented with all those benefits, many people simply ride forth without considering anything else. You might see some of them personally even. You know, those people who skip traffic jams by going at moderately high speeds. It is all fine and dandy until they hit either someone who exits a car, a jaywalker or a child.
And keep in mind, most scooters are 45 to 90 lbs or 20-40 kg in weight. Also, keep in mind that their average speeds are about 20 miles/h or 32 km/h. Think about how painful would be not only for them but for you also to get hit by those numbers. And you might (and should) wear a helmet for protection, but that is all.
Going at high speeds on a scooter in a risky situation is like arming a ticking bomb. In order to personally avoid such situations, avoid provoking them. Go at moderate, even slow speeds when there are many people around or when the traffic is packed.
Furthermore, keep in mind that we live in a golden age of the e-scooter industry and that many people are new to this. Thus, being newbies and without proper ways to learn, most new riders are unpredictable at best. This is especially dangerous in the big and crowded cities where you get those 2$/ride e-scooters that can be found everywhere.
Fortunately, though, despite my cherry-picking, there are few e-scooter riders who do this on a global scale. Thus, you shouldn’t worry, as our reputation hasn’t been soiled yet. Although, it is the rider’s duty to keep in mind that not only they matter on the road and/or the sidewalk.
We should keep it civilized, go slow in crowded areas and we should not put anyone in danger. And, whenever and wherever you can, help those who are new to this. You will make the streets safer for everyone.
In conclusion, despite the ill things that I have been writing about, I would lean towards no. Sure, they do pollute indirectly through all the means I have previously addressed. However, so does everything we consume. Even the production of bio foods involves pollution on a large scale.
However, in this case, is not how much it pollutes, but how much it saves. Yes, their production and transportation processes are bad for the environment. However, let us take, for example, a gas-consuming scooter. The aforementioned processes of manufacture and transportation are the same.
However, this is where the similarities end. While the gas scooter pollutes both in the short and long term, the e-scooter will, after purchase, not. The e-scooter will provide, more or less, the same benefits of transportation, yet with a reduced imprint upon the environment.
Thus, should you be truly involved with caring about our environment, the e-scooter should be your go-to method of transportation.