How Sustainable is Tesla?

Written by Dan Simms

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Dan Simms

Dan Simms is a sustainability writer with a focus on clean technology, electric vehicles, and residential solar. Dan has been published in several notable climate-focused websites, including EcoWatch. He installed solar panels at his home in NY state.

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Tesla has been a leader in the electric vehicles space for years, but just how green is Tesla?

Given that our team at LeafScore is concerned primarily with the impact of purchasing decisions on climate change, I wanted to take a deep dive into how sustainable Tesla is as a company, with a focus on the flagship Model S.

In the below sections, I’ll discuss what this car looks like from an environmental-friendliness standpoint. It’s worth noting that EVs don’t have exhaust emissions, but there are some other things to consider in terms of pollution related to driving and manufacturing.

Tesla’s Manufacturing Practices

Most importantly, the production of EV batteries generates far more emissions than the production process for ICE vehicles. Producing the battery alone for a Tesla generates between 5,291 and 35,273 pounds of CO2 emissions, which is up to three times higher than the emissions to manufacture a gas-powered car. I’ll explain in a later section how these higher emissions are expected to be overcome over the life of the vehicle.

Tesla has made efforts to make its Gigafactories more efficient by completing more of the manufacturing process on-site and minimizing the distance between portions of the production line. Additionally, by its own report, Tesla has a lower water consumption for manufacturing per car, which helps increase sustainability a bit.

Lastly, all of the manufacturing for Teslas is done in the U.S. and in accordance with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which helps cut down on emissions.

Tesla’s Transition to Vegan Leather

In response to ethical concerns raised by customers, Tesla stopped using real leather in all of its cars in 2016 and now uses vegan leather. While this helps reduce the mistreatment of animals for products, it also means that the interior contains some potentially harmful chemicals.

See also: The best vegan leather jackets

The vegan leather in most Teslas is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyurethane, which contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These put strain on the environment by contributing to ozone production and because they’re not very biodegradable. Plus, they are considered carcinogenic during and potentially after production, so the people who work with these materials are put at risk.

The vegan leather in the Model 3 isn’t quite as supple as genuine animal leather, and there have been some complaints about its durability over long periods. However, it’s a morally better decision than using real leather, and the look and feel are quite nice.

Some Teslas—including the Model 3—have cloth seat options, and there is an upgrade option for bamboo seats, reportedly coming in at close to $30,000.

Tesla Tires

One thing many people seem to overlook when discussing emissions is how tires degrade and contribute to pollution. Over time, your tire treads wear down from friction created between the rubber and the road. An estimated 1.5 million tons of tire particles pollute water, soil, and air each year in the U.S. alone.

Unfortunately, tire wear is higher for Teslas than for most ICE cars because they are heavier. The average car comes in between 2,500 and 4,000 pounds in most cases, but the Model 3 weighs in at 4,048 pounds. That added weight creates more friction between the tires and the road, which increases emissions coming from the rubber than you’d see on most sedans.

How Much Brake Dust Do Tesla’s Emit?

Brake dust is another often-overlooked emission coming from vehicles. When your brake pads engage, particles are slowly scraped off of both the wheels and the pads, contributing to pollution.

Given the above-average weight of the Model S, you can expect to see more brake dust coming from the car than you would from standard ICE vehicles. Additionally, since the Tesla accelerates more quickly than most cars, there’s a chance that hard braking will be more common with this EV. I can say from firsthand experience that it’s difficult not to drive this like a sports car.

EV Charging

It’s easy to think that the electricity you pour into any EV to “refuel” it is more sustainable than pumping gas into an ICE car, and to some extent, you would be correct. However, it’s important to consider that, while charging an EV uses electricity, that power is often produced at plants by burning fossil fuels. It’s more efficient to burn coal and natural gas at a power plant than it is in your car, but it still generates emissions.

However, Tesla is different in this regard in that the company used 100% renewable energy for its superchargers in 2021—the most recent year a sustainability report is available as of this writing. Charging a Tesla at a public charging facility, at least in 2021, meant that no net emissions were generated.

If you want to charge your Tesla at home, the only way to do so without calling on fossil fuels is to couple your EV with solar panels. You’ll likely need solar batteries like the Tesla Powerwall to ensure your consumption doesn’t outpace your production and dip into power from the grid unless you have access to a good net metering policy.

Tesla Battery Recycling

Another area where Tesla excels in sustainability is in its battery recycling program. First off, none of the scrap batteries from production are sent to a landfill, and 100% of them are recycled. Second, Tesla has a recycling program that reuses a large portion of end-of-life batteries to manufacture new ones, cutting down on long-term emissions for production. Battery recycling remains a sustainability issue for many other EV manufacturers.

Other Recycled Materials and Sustainable Features

Tesla takes pride in maximizing its sustainability, and it does this in a few ways.

First off, it has switched to a low-VOC, water-based paint, which is easier on the environment than paints with higher levels of VOCs. Some Tesla owners have complained that the paint is “soft” and chips more easily than it will on other cars, but these claims haven’t officially been substantiated.

All Teslas come equipped with HEPA filters as a part of the air conditioning and heating systems, which can help protect you from pollution outside. All models other than the Model 3 also have a sensationally-named “Bioweapon Defense Mode,” which steps up air scrubbing to the extreme.

The company made headlines when it tested this mode in a controlled environment with nearly 100x the pollution levels set by the EPA’s standards for “good” air quality. Not only did the car scrub the air inside the cab clean, but it also cleaned the air outside. You wouldn’t drive around in this mode on a daily basis, but it does say something about the car’s filtration capabilities. This is especially important for EV owners in smog-filled cities.

It should be noted that Tesla is not currently a member of the Responsible Steel Initiative, which some other automobile companies have joined. These include Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo, all of which also make EVs.

Unfortunately, Tesla is not entirely upfront about the sourcing of its raw materials, either. However, it did mention in a report filed with the SEC that it takes precautions to acquire materials from reputable sources. There is no clear answer as to whether or not the company sources recycled materials for production.

One last thing to mention is that the Model 3 and other Teslas are designed with efficiency in mind, so they are made to be highly aerodynamic to reduce drag. Things like in-set door handles and low-profile wheel wells ultimately make them more efficient. The Model 3 has a reported drag coefficient of 0.23 Cd, compared to the typical range of 0.25 to 0.3 Cd.

Not only do the car’s design features make the car more aerodynamic, but it means higher efficiency overall. The battery in the Long-Range Model 3 is 80 kWh and provides a range of around 350 miles on a single charge—a mile-to-kWh ratio of 4.375. Compared to the industry standard of around 67 kWh and 212 miles—a mile-to-kWh ratio of 3.16—Tesla outclasses most EVs in efficiency.

Corporate Social Responsibility Report

Tesla started publishing its “Impact Report” in 2018, which is the company’s version of a formal Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report. It includes information on the sustainability of the products it manufactures, corporate governance, environmental impact, and the impact it has on its communities and employees.

Based on the most recent report from 2021, it does seem clear that the company is committed to sustainability on all fronts. Of course, an important part of sustainability for many people includes the social impact a company has. There have been recent reports of racism being displayed in Tesla factories, although these allegations are still under investigation.

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10 Comments

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  1. Good read. I think the Break Dust section is misleading due to regenerative breaking. Tesla (and other EV) drivers rarely have to use the break pedal.

    Also, I think it adds context to mention that Tesla has clear plans to improve a lot of this – like not requiring hazardous raw material in battery chemistry, sourcing more from recycled batteries over time, manufacturing improvements, more solar, etc.

  2. Great article but it seems unfinished, there is no conclusion. Consider simply comparing it to a comparable vehicle and then indicate how many miles the EV would need to be driven to offset the additional embodied emissions from the battery. I think you will find it’s about 5k miles which is about 4 months of driving, so don’t loose sleep over this an EV is orders of magnitude more sustainable.
    Other thoughts:
    -EVs are additional load on the system offset by additional load on the grid which today is met 60% by renewables 40% by gas, so your EV purchase is NEVER adding coal or oil based generating sources.

  3. My question is not answered. When you need to purchase a new battery $20,000 what then did you save by not buying gasoline???

  4. You state “Given the above-average weight of the Model S, you can expect to see more brake dust coming from the car than you would from standard ICE vehicles.” I’m sure this is totally false. Because of regenerative braking, the pads are rarely used to slow down. Certainly FAR less than a typical ICE car. On my Model 3, after driving it for 3 hrs straight, the brake discs are totally cold and can be touched with a finger. Would be impossible in a regular car.

  5. What’s the most sustainable car, especially when it comes to chemicals? The chemically- sensitive have had a very difficult time finding cars they don’t have to off-gas for lengthy periods of time before using.

    The Ecology Center tested cars back in 2012, but since then the chemically- sensitive have had to rely on anecdotal accounts, preowned cars where no one wore fragrance, used harsh chemicals in the car, etc.

    Are you aware of any resources or strategies when it comes to buying nontoxic vehicles?

  6. After a skim read, I don’t see anything much about the resources required to create the battery: lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper ore, RAM chips, aluminium, steel and/or plastic, and the amount of CO2 taken to extract these metals from the earth.

  7. I think that Tesla is doing more in there factories to reduce polution than the big 3 between using less components and overall better manufacturing processes. Tesla’s use less brakes because they don’t get used often due to electric motor regenerative braking and suvs ICE vehicles have about the same weight but use their brakes all the time.

  8. How do you explain the wide variable in weight of CO2 in production, 5291 to 35273 lbs, the latter being a 7 fold increase.

  9. When Tesla was in Burlingham , Ca the city, like most cities in America, asked local businesses to close down until the impact of Covid could be assessed. This was at the height of Covid and was implemented to keep line workers from dying. Musk decided his bottom line was more important than his workers health and moved the plant to Texas. Never buy a Tesla if you care about workers rights. Also Musk’s decision to allow Hate Speech (not free speech) on Twitter shows you all you need to know about the man.

  10. I would like a little more detail about said battery recycling technology. Where specifically does this take place in our country (USA)? Is the business under the Tesla heading or is it a subsidiary? Does the business receive subsidies in order for it to function?

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