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Driving Change

Here's how e-scooter and e-bike companies could embrace the circular economy

Shared micromobility services may reduce emissions, but the short lifespan of the scooters and bicycles raises questions about materials use and deeper supply-chain impacts.

This article was adapted from GreenBiz's newsletter, Transport Weekly. Subscribe here.

The growth of micromobility — e-scooters and e-bikes popping up around cities — has a lingering problem. The short lifespan (sometimes just a couple months) of shared e-scooters significantly raises their average emissions and lowers their environmental benefits.  

For a new mode of transportation that has the potential to reduce car use and traffic, this is supremely disappointing. 

Researchers at North Carolina State University conducted a life-cycle assessment of shared e-scooters and found that how environmentally friendly they are greatly depends on how long they last, how they're made and what mode of transportation they replace. Not surprisingly, the biggest factor that could reduce the emissions of shared scooters appears to be extending the life of the scooters from a couple months to something more like two years.

To address this problem, scooter companies need to embrace the growing movement around the circular economy and work with their supply chains to make some significant changes. 

Most scooter companies harvest batteries and other expensive parts off aged scooters, but the circular scooter system clearly could be optimized.
You might have heard of the circular economy concept through a talk from architect and designer Bill McDonough or British retired sailor Ellen MacArthur and her foundation. But today, businesses are increasingly embracing the concept to redesign their systems to reduce waste, and make items and products that last longer. When done right, businesses also can save money by tapping into waste streams and or launching new business models. 

For example, this summer at our Circularity 19 conference, Google Chief Sustainability Officer Kate Brandt unveiled Google's new circular economy plan (PDF), stating: "We want a circular Google in a sustainable world. ... It means the entire system needs to change." The efforts include redesigning how Google builds data centers and corporate campuses, how it manufactures consumer electronics and how it feeds employees. 

I chatted with our own circular economy senior analyst, Lauren Phipps, who says, "Overall, when a company is selling a service rather than a product, like a scooter ride rather than the scooter itself, it should (theoretically) incentivize durable design and product life extension." Scooter companies can do a variety of things to embrace circularity. Here are four:

Design scooters for durability: Most scooter providers originally launched by buying and operating cheap and short-lived scooters from Chinese company Ninebot. But recently, some scooter companies, such as Bird, have started to design their own scooters that are more robust and have more durable parts. Bird says its new Bird One scooter can last in a sharing environment for over a year, and the company is also selling this scooter for purchase.

Designing for real-world durability is the right way to go.
The trend of designing for real-world durability is the right way to go. And when companies collect more data from operating and maintaining these new more robust scooters, it will help future generations last longer. For scooter companies that are still working with the Ninebots and Xiaomis of the world, it's equally important to work with suppliers to collaborate on more durable design. 

Design scooters for repair/refurbish: The next step for better-designed scooters also includes designing scooters that can be taken apart and repaired, so that the life cycle of the product can be extended more easily. Most scooter companies harvest batteries and other expensive parts off aged scooters, but the circular scooter system clearly could be optimized. 

Software and computing can extend scooter life: Because scooters create a data trail for companies, and potentially for cities, all that data can be used to develop artificial intelligence tools to extend and optimize scooter life. One tool that we've mentioned before is Superpedestrian, founded by Assaf Biderman, associate director of the MIT Senseable City Laboratory. The startup's AI can help scooters autonomously protect themselves from failures.

There's also only so long that a scooter battery can last when it's charged and discharged over and over again. After a battery has been used for some time, it starts to degrade and holds a charge for less time. Software tools can help optimize the scooter-charging process to extend battery life cycles. 

Design scooters for end of life: Photos of the Chinese bikeshare graveyards are pretty disturbing. Some cities are pushing scooter companies to include life-cycle assessments and recycling plans into city applications. But equally important is designing scooters that more easily can include recycling and disposal of all parts in a sustainable way.

Shared scooter companies need to adopt circular economy practices if they're to achieve their full potential of making transportation more sustainable. Without these circular systems, scooter companies could face even more backlash and see a threat to their social license to operate. BTW, at VERGE 19, we've got a workshop specifically on solving problems with micromobility.

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