The Sustainability Challenges of E-Scooters

Scooters are touted as a low-cost, clean form of transportation, yet their life span is far from sustainable — and their parts could pose a danger to recycling facilities.

Destructive flash floods that rushed through the Washington, DC region last week washed away slews of items in their paths. Trees, fences and picnic tables were caught in floodwaters alongside popular dockless scooters that otherwise line the city’s streets.

Micromobility operators Bird, Jump and Lime confirmed to The Verge that they sent employees to remove scooters from the flooded areas. The electric battery-powered devices were said to undergo inspections and maintenance and would be returned to service as appropriate.

But such maintenance begs some questions: With all the wear-and-tear electric scooters sustain, just how long do they last? And what happens at the end of their useful product lives?

A lease on life

Micromobility companies, generally speaking, hesitate to discuss the life span of an e-scooter. Several that Smart Cities Dive contacted declined to offer any data on that topic.

But a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report released in May offers a clearer picture. Its analysis concluded that the average e-scooter has a life span of just three months.

A Bird spokesperson provided information that aligns with that estimate, noting the first vehicles they launched had a life span of only a few months. But the newer, more robust Bird Zero lasts an average of 10 months, and the Bird One, released in May, is forecasted to last more than a year.

A Lyft spokesperson anticipates their new models — recently launched in Denver and expected to roll out soon to other cities — will last twice as long as previous versions but declined to give numerical context.

BCG’s report explains that e-scooters were initially designed for private — not shared economy — applications, so the heavy usage and rough treatment negatively impact durability and life span.

The report didn’t delve into the devices’ overall sustainability and end-of-life device handling, but rather the economics of e-scooter businesses and their impacts on cities. The short life span plays into the business economics. Thus far, although they’re quiet on the topic, e-scooter companies are not profitable, the report claims.

“We felt [life span] was a clear issue in the industry even just from an economics perspective, never mind the city side effects of it,” Tyler Barrack, BCG principal and study co-author, told Smart Cities Dive. “You have players that are, on an overall basis, unprofitable. And you have a big, addressable market where scale is an advantage, setting up the conditions for likely consolidation.”

Consolidation is a key theme in Boston Consulting Group’s report. Economics, the inability of consumers to differentiate between operators and cities limiting the number of allowed operators all play a role. BCG did not offer insight on any deals that might be in the works, but postulated that considerable consolidation is inevitable.

Bird acquired competitor Scoot about a month after the BCG report was released, and further acquisitions are predicted in the coming months.

Barrack acknowledges that this acquisition is one of a few aspects of the BCG report that already are out of date due to the lighting-fast rate of change in the mobility sector.

“The fact that this is three months old and [it’s] no longer current is just an instance of how quickly this market is moving,” he said. “So there may have been a new model rolled out by some of these companies and they may be seeing some improved [device] life. I haven’t heard anything to that effect, but it’s possible.”

A Bird spokesperson claims the company last year released the first scooter designed and engineered for the sharing market, and the increased lifespan and battery capacity reportedly made that model profitable. Yet analysts hold to their assertion that the larger industry isn’t there yet.

“There may be markets or pockets where individual companies are actually profitable. As of right now, the unit economics are profitable but the fact that the scooter doesn’t last long enough makes them unprofitable,” Barrack said. “You have to imagine these companies have a heavy incentive to figure this problem out in terms of life span.”

Nearly all the major operators have announced efforts recently to ruggedize their devices and extend the life span. This includes more robust tires, sturdier bodies, improved brakes and longer battery life.

“As of right now, the unit economics are profitable but the fact that the scooter doesn’t last long enough makes them unprofitable.”

——Tyler Barrack

Principal, Boston Consulting Group

Besides device life span, running a micromobility business proves to be labor and cost intensive because of the common charging and maintenance model that requires scooters to be collected each night and redistributed the next day. Some businesses rely on in-house employees for this work while most choose to hire independent contractors.

A Spin spokesperson told Smart Cities Dive that the majority of the company’s mechanics are in-house employees. Lyft says its local operations teams give scooters a check-up every time they return to a warehouse.

Haste makes waste?

E-scooters are marketed as a low-cost, environmentally friendly form of transportation. While they outdo cars on clean travel because they emit no emissions, more is at stake in determining a product’s net sustainability. End-of-life product management and recyclability also factor in.

These aspects are being brought to light in certain cities that have adopted or are looking into e-scooter programs. Waste and sustainability concerns arose at a city council meeting in Missoula, MT when council members were supposed to vote on whether or not to create a scooter program.

A member of the public at that meeting stated that the scooters create waste and are not in line with the city’s “zero waste” goals. Council members ended up tabling the scooter program decision for further discussion at a later date.

Controversy erupted last year when operator Skip accused competitors of sending their end-of-life devices to landfill. At that time, the life span of many scooters was estimated at about one to two months. Skip said its competitors were hypocritical for touting environmental benefits while creating mountains of waste. Lime refuted the claims.

Numerous micromobility companies report having some sort of end-of-life plan in place, but they vary in the level of detail they will share.

“We currently have processes in place to fix and reuse — and where that’s not possible, recycle — all of our scooters. If scooters or scooter parts are not suitable for consumer use, we work with local and regional certified recycling companies to efficiently and responsibly recycle our vehicles,” a Lime spokeswoman said via email.

Lyft said it works with third-party service providers to develop and execute responsible recycling programs. That includes safe storage and dismantling practices as well as reusing as many components as possible. Hazardous waste, including electric batteries, is disposed of responsibly.

Bird has maintenance and repair systems in place to maximize reuse of vehicles and their parts, according to a spokesperson. They reuse all parts possible and recycle those that can’t be reused.

A Spin representative said the company is working on a process to responsibly dispose of or recycle for parts the vehicles that are past the point of repair. The frequency of swapping out old components for new ones varies by model and the type of use it sustained.

Not all of the devices are ending up in operators’ end-of-life programs. Some consumers apparently are taking matters into their own hands and turning in branded devices at trash or recycling facilities.

The scooter end-of-life issue — both for commercial and personal devices — is on the radar of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a recycling industry member association. A member scrapyard recently notified ISRI that it had received an e-scooter. However, the phenomenon is too new for organizations to determine the scale of e-scooters making their way to recycling or trash disposal facilities.

“This is a new item coming into scrapyards. ISRI is working to educate its members about e-scooters and advises them to be on the lookout for these devices,” Mark Carpenter, ISRI assistant vice president of communications and marketing, told Smart Cities Dive. “Facilities need to be aware the scooters contain batteries that can pose a safety hazard, and those must be removed before handling.”

The same electric battery warning holds true for any trash or recycling facility that receives an e-scooter. Safety practices also should be in place for haulers who transport trash and recyclables.

Cities recognize that scooters’ electric batteries are hazardous and some address the issue in mobility regulations or permitting. For example, mobility companies operating in Austin, TX must abide by the director’s rules, which include a line about battery disposal requirements.

Although operators report employing end-of-life plans for devices they pull from use themselves, vandals have other ideas. In addition to one-off cases of vandalism, there have been instances of scooters dumped en masse, raising environmental concerns.

More than two dozen scooters were discovered dumped at the end of a street in Memphis, TN in June. Also last month, a county sheriff’s dive team pulledmore than 50 scooters from multiple operators out of the Willamette River in Portland, OR. Divers were concerned the batteries would leak into the river. It’s unclear who put the scooters there or when, but some of them showed signs of rust.

Scooter operators, cities and the public at large agree that scooter vandalism is inappropriate and can harm the community. But that doesn’t eliminate the fact that it happens, and presumably with a fair amount of frequency, as operators are tight-lipped about the total costs associated with vandalism.

Analysts cite vandalism, device durability and sustainability as areas scooter operators need to get in-check if they intend to survive.

BCG’s Barrack noted that despite the sustainability and profitability challenges these companies face, they possess a unique advantage over other shared economy businesses. Typically, a huge cost centers on customer acquisition and building out the market so people want to use a product. But that element isn’t evident with e-scooters, he said. Instead, uptake has been explosive.

“People have seen these things on the street, they’re relatively easy to sign up for and people want to use them. That has been a fascinating difference,” Barrack said.

But that information could be taken one of two ways in analyzing the future of shared e-scooters.

“It can either mean this is something that has immediate customer acceptance and is something people really want and are going to continue to use, or it could be a fad that people try once and don’t use often. We just don’t have the data on reuse rates to know whether it’s just a novelty or it’s going to be a dependable mode of transportation,” Barrack said.