China’s electric bicycle problem

Sometimes, you just can’t win.

You’d expect a country that’s embracing electric bicycles as an alternative to cars to be lauded as an environmental savior. But scale – scale has a way of undoing our best intentions. So, when40 million Chinese pick up battery-powered bikes, people (like the writers at LiveScience) just have to ask – “So where is all the lead going?”:

I found that electric bikes travel about 35 percent faster than bicycles and have a much larger range. In the city of Kunming, an electric bike can access 60 percent more jobs within 20 minutes than a traditional bicycle. Compared to a 30-40 minute bus ride, an electric bike rider can access three to six times the number of jobs.

While this increase in mobility is remarkable, this mobility does come at a cost, namely increased lead pollution from battery use.

Electric bikes use one car-sized lead acid battery per year. Each battery represents 30-40 percent of its lead content emitted to the environment in the production processes, resulting in about 3 kilograms of lead emitted per battery produced. When scaled up the 40 million electric bikes currently on the roads, this is an astonishing amount of lead emitted into the environment.


  1. =v= Lead batteries are a problem even at non-Chinese scale. That’s why I’ve never bought into the idea that there’s some huge ecological benefit to slapping electric motors on formerly-nonpolluting devices.

  2. With Christmas quick approaching, many of my fellow parents are purchasing those battery-powered play cars, bicycles and scooters. I feel those parents are short-sighted if not outright idiots. This article only makes me feel more strongly that those battery-powered conveyances are evil.

    America is a nation of fatties. Why on earth would a parent spend three times as much on a kid-sized, battery-powered car instead of a bicycle? Why not kill two birds with one stone and bypass the opportunity to create hazardous waste in the process?

    (PS, I’m not just saying this because I am bitter my parents would never buy me a battery-powered GI Joe Jeep with working two-way radio that could also transmit Morse code by clicking the orange button while holding the PTT key. So, stop looking at me like that, okay?)

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