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E-bikes are eco-friendly, but their batteries are a different story

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Boulder BCycle uses Bosch batteries for their e-bike fleet.
Jackie Sedley/KGNU

E-bike batteries can be finicky.

They're often made of lithium and can overheat if left charging unattended for extended periods of time.

Not only this, they're also incredibly difficult to recycle.

Rocky Mountain Community Radio

E-bikes are eco-friendly. Their batteries? Not so much.


With state and local incentives to get more Colorado residents onto e-bikes, what to do about the batteries is a looming dilemma.

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 Hi-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,” said Blueotter.

“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, but for the time that employee is taking and that’s taking people away from our shop.”

Blueotter does what she can to help folks with battery-related questions.

Blueotter is a trained geologist and, as a result, understands the chemistry and other scientific components behind lithium-ion batteries.

"With overcharging lithium, if your battery management system is not working correctly, your battery will get super excited," she said.

"Keeping it plugged in, it's just going to take on that energy, take on that energy, and eventually it's going to expand, and 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.

Back over in Boulder, the e-bike fleet at the Boulder BCycle bike sharing program deals with heavy use in Colorado weather.

General manager Kevin Crouse says high-quality batteries that tend to have a longer lifespan and are generally more reliable cost more up-front, but that was a conscientious investment made when transitioning the fleet to all electric in 2021.

Boulder BCycle sticks to one battery brand that they feel is reliable and high quality, Bosch batteries.

They have Underwriter Laboratories Certification, which means that they have been tested to meet nationally recognized safety standards.

"They certainly can be more expensive to have third-party testing and verification, but what we gain out of it is a much greater sense of security, both that the battery is going to operate as it should without error, but also that it's going to have a long lifespan," he said.

All bikes in the BCycle fleet have batteries mounted externally on a rear rack, as opposed to being installed internally.

Some of the more affordable e-bike models on the market have batteries embedded in the frames, meaning when the battery dies, the entire bike no longer functions as intended.

Crouse says due to their novelty, many people now looking to purchase an e-bike may not have these details in mind.

Despite these complications, BCycle's Crouse sees a hopeful future for e-bikes, even though they have a larger environmental footprint than a conventional pedal-powered bike.

"E-bikes have been shown to basically get more people out on a bike more often for farther trips, and as long as some of those trips are helping to displace gas-powered trips, then it should be a large environmental win," said Crouse.

During both conversations, Blueotter and Crouse brought up Call2Recycle.

The non-profit is well known in the e-bike distributor community.

It has thousands of battery drop-off locations across the United States, and kick-started a Hungry for Batteries campaign that focuses specifically on e-bike battery disposal.

Eric Frederickson is the Vice President of Operations at Call2Recycle.

The recycling process is multifaceted, but Frederickson breaks it down into a handful of steps.

"So you ship the batteries, you then sort them and check them in. They are then sent to the nearest recycler. Typically shredding is the first step," he said.

"After you shred the batteries, you start to separate out the plastic. You separate out the metals of value. So those refined metals are now a product that can be sent directly back into manufacturing systems."

E-bikes have taken center stage as Colorado continues to appear forward-thinking toward greener and more sustainable transportation options.

Ultimately, the journey toward integrating e-bikes into our daily lives involves more than simply adopting a new mode of transport, and business owners and battery collection organizations agree it will take a collective effort to provide safer and more accessible methods of lithium ion battery recycling.

Jackie Sedley covers all things environment and climate for KGNU in Boulder as a Report for America member. This story was shared with Rocky Mountain PBS via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, including Rocky Mountain PBS.

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