Residents all across northeast Ohio have heard the legendary story, at one time or another, of the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. The famous 1969 fire, which debuted in Time Magazine, was not the first time the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. It was actually the thirteenth time in Cleveland’s history that the river ignited.
It was that fire, which started the process of environmental reform across the United States starting with the creations of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. These regulations and other environmental techniques such as dredging -removing sediments from the bottom of rivers- have helped rehabilitate the Cuyahoga River. The river is now the cleanest it has ever been since the 1969 fire and serves as a home to at least sixty species of aquatic life.
This past summer Cuyahoga River celebrated the fiftieth anniversary since the historic fire. A variety of news outlets in Cleveland covered the the anniversary and the efforts many organizations in northeast Ohio are doing to help preserve a piece of state history. In addition to the anniversary coverage the Cuyahoga River has served as a beacon of news over the past year. Stories along the one hundred miles of the river this year tell of a man going missing in Akron after being on the river, a water rescue in Kent, a kayaker who died in early September and a man literally driving is car into the Cuyahoga River. The majority of these news stories involve some type of casualty happening on the river, but several states across the U.S. are seeing a new trend of pollution that could result in bigger casualties within our own environment. That trend is electric scooters.
Electric scooters are popping up on the sidewalks in almost every major city in the nation. You might be wondering how exactly electric scooters are polluting our waterways. Well, the answer dives into a new movement: throwing electric scooters into nearby rivers, lakes and in some instances the ocean. These scooters are coming from two major suppliers: Lime and Bird. The trend has started in the west coast with the most scooters submerged underwater in California. Nearly 100 scooters were found in the depths of Lake Meritt last year and in the month of October (2018) volunteers counted at least 60 electric scooters at the bottom of the lake. Then in Michigan the trend continues. There have been several reports of electric scooters ending up at the bottom of the Detroit River in August of this year. Police believe there is more than one person throwing scooters into the river in the city of Detroit. In Oregon, police found more than 50 electric scooters in the Willamette River. Officials were concerned about the scooters’ batteries rusting over and leaking chemicals into the river.
Both companies Lime and Bird do not share the exact specifications on the type of battery each scooter is equipped with; however, the majority of electric scooters in 2019 could be made with a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. This type of battery is said to be more eco-friendly compared to past batteries such as the sealed led acid battery. For a period of time the led acid battery served as the dominant battery on the market because they were the most cost effective and reliable battery on the market. In the last few years Lithium-ion battery has taken over as the top contender and are the most popular today because they are the lighter and even more cost effective compared to the sealed led acid battery. Even though lithium-ion batteries are the best option right now, doesn’t mean they are the most environmentally for long periods of time underwater.
In general, regular batteries are equipped with hazardous chemicals that can be harmful to the human body and our environment. Chemicals that can be used in batteries include: zinc, lead, nickel-cadmium, sodium chloride, chloric acid, nitric acid, potassium nitrate, hydrochloric acid just to name a few. At least on Lime’s website underneath the frequently asked questions section the company mentions a small annotation about how water resistant the batteries are. Lime states “Is the battery waterproof? The battery is splash proof, meaning it can withstand both rain and snow.” This only ensures that their scooters will withstand only brief amounts of snow and rain. If multiple scooters are underneath several feet of water for an extended period of time, the batteries’ hazardous chemicals could impact our ecosystem when they corrode, leak or rust. The chemicals based on the chemical reactions of corrosion could impact our environment if not disposed of correctly.
In general, lithium resistant batteries are rarely recycled worldwide according Solar Learning Center. They found that less than five percent of lithium batteries are recycled worldwide. In the next 21 years more than 11 million tons or 22 billion pounds of lithium batteries will be disposed. That means only about 1.1 billion pounds of lithium batteries will be recycled. Solar Learning Center also says that the majority of these batteries will end up in landfills allowing for the batteries to corrode and leak chemicals into our soil and potentially even into river runoffs. This could happen to countless other cities in the U.S. if electric scooters sit and corrode at the bottom of several lakes and rivers. Hazardous chemicals from the battery could leak into our aquatic habitats and potentially into the human body depending who interacts in the waterways. But is Cleveland next on the new trend of scooter dumping?
Recently, the city of Cleveland reinstated having electric scooters throughout the city. The city banned the scooters the first time around because they posed as a safety concern for many people in the city. Tourists and locals misunderstood where they could exactly leave the scooters after a ride and if the scooters should be allowed in traffic. The regulations as of right now do not touch on throwing the electric scooters into any waterways or taking them near the shores of Lake Erie. If the people Cleveland start to follow the new trend across the country, who says the Cuyahoga River might not have pollution once again?