Electric cars are generally perceived as environmentally friendly — but how true is this? While the main features of electric cars, such as engines that don't run on fossil fuels like petrol or diesel, add up to an eco-friendly option, do drivers get the full benefit of that?

In this guide, we'll look at the manufacturing process of top EV cars, the disposal and recycling of depleted EV car batteries, and why the time of day you choose to recharge can impact whether your electric car is zero-carbon in real terms.

How eco-friendly is the manufacturing process of EV cars?

Manufacturing any large item, such as a car, is bound to have a carbon footprint. There are materials involved in the construction that could be hazardous to the environment, not least the battery cells installed in the EV's engine.

These batteries need rare metals like lithium, cobalt, and nickel to function, and those elements must be mined from the Earth. However, they can also be recycled from old batteries and other electronic devices — so the market for rare metal recovery is rising fast.

In the future, it's likely that more closed-loop recycling of rare earth elements, along with established infrastructure for EV recharging and renewable energy generation, will make electric cars sustainable for the long term, allowing them to eclipse internal combustion engines (ICEs) in eco-friendly terms even during their initial manufacture.

Are EV car batteries recycled in an eco-friendly way?

Going back to those batteries and recycling the rare elements within, and again, more needs to be done. While this could be driven by environmental concerns, it will also be driven by market forces — supply and demand.

Elements like lithium and cobalt are recyclable but non-renewable, so as mining them becomes more difficult, recovering them from existing products becomes more desirable and, therefore, more profitable.

For all sorts of electronic products, this natural shift in supply and demand is likely to drive battery recycling rates higher, with fewer going to landfill or incineration — all of which is good news for the long-term eco-friendliness of electric cars.

How does the UK compete on lithium recycling?

The UK could do more to develop its domestic lithium recycling capabilities, in order to support the home-grown electric car manufacturing sector. In a 2020 report, the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick found that there were more than a dozen major lithium-ion battery recycling facilities in the EU, but none in the UK.

At that time, the UK was Europe's second-biggest market for automobiles with more than 2.3 million vehicles sold each year, and one of Europe's leading electric vehicle markets, accounting for 6% of EVs sold in Europe.

The report also set out the UK's demand for rare earth elements, and how much of that demand could be serviced by recycling:

Metal

Demand (tonnes/year)

Recycling Potential (tonnes/year)

Percent

Lithium

14,000

3,000

21%

Cobalt

12,000

2,600

21%

Nickel

96,000

20,600

21%

These figures are based on expected demand in 2040 and a possible recycling rate of 60% of end-of-life batteries by that time, with 40% of batteries reused or remanufactured.

Report co-author, Professor David Greenwood, said: "Electric vehicles offer huge potential for decarbonising transport and improving air quality, but as we accelerate their early market, we must equally be thinking about what happens at the end of their useful life."

He added: "In doing so we will protect the environment, secure valuable raw materials, and reduce the cost of transport."

Are EV vehicles really environmentally friendly?

Overall, zero-emission EV vehicles have significant environmentally friendly characteristics when compared with conventional ICE cars and even plug-in hybrids . But as always, in the real world, there are variables that can affect how well those benefits are delivered.

For example, it's usually cheaper and easier to recharge electric cars overnight , when tariffs are off-peak, and demand on the local electricity grid is lower. But at night, solar power is less available, so there's more chance you'll be charging your car from fossil fuel energy.

This is likely to improve over time as more diverse renewable power comes online, including more wind, tidal and hydroelectric power, which can be generated around the clock, and better battery storage to keep solar power from the daytime to be used at night.

Until then, the eco-friendly advantages of electric cars  still make them an excellent option for environmentally aware motorists, which will only get better in the years to come.