Car tires and brakes are major sources of pollutants that are poisoning fish and littering the ocean with microplastics, and EVs will only make this problem worse. 

Car tires contain 6PPD-quinone, a toxic chemical used to help stop car tires from breaking down. This chemical is extremely toxic to fish—in studies, the chemical kills fish within just a few hours. Despite the use of this preservative, car tires do still break down, of course.

The average tire loses 4kg over its lifetime—shedding particles containing 6PPD-quinone and other chemicals, microplastics, and road surface particles. Car brake pads also shed microplastics. Research shows that particles from tires and brakes make up the 2nd most ubiquitous source of microplastics in the world’s oceans, behind only fibers from clothes made from synthetic materials like polyester, nylon, lycra, and rayon—all plastic. Microplastics are small enough to get into the food chain when consumed by zooplankton and small fish, which are then consumed by larger fish, which are then consumed by us. There is some concern that tire and brake dust may also produce nanoplastics, plastic particles tiny enough to cross the blood-brain barrier and contaminate even our brains. Microplastics have already been found in fetuses in the womb, so all today’s babies are born pre-polluted with plastic. Plants take up microplastics through their roots, so even vegetables contain plastic now.

Microplastics from cars contaminate not just rivers, lakes, and the ocean but also the air: many microplastics and all nanoplastics are light enough to create air pollution. Previous studies have shown that the average human eats, drinks, and breathes a credit card’s worth of plastic every week. Microplastics have been found at the bottom of the ocean and at the top of mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park and in the Alps. As with all plastic, microplastics are contaminated with other pollutants that stick easily to plastic, so when we ingest these particles, we are also ingesting many other toxic pollutants with them.

Electric vehicles will only worsen the problem of tire and brake wear, creating more microplastics and potentially more nanoplastics, too. Electric vehicles are substantially heavier than gas-powered vehicles because of the battery weight. This creates more tire and brake wear and thus, more pollution.

Plastics in the environment are as much an existential risk to the living planet, including humanity, as are the many other threats we face, such as climate change. Plastics contain dioxins, powerful persistent pollutants that can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones. Whether plastic is landfilled or incinerated these chemicals leach into the water, soil, and air. Plastic pollution has been linked to halving of human sperm counts since the 1970s (and if plastics are reducing human sperm counts, it’s likely they are reducing sperm counts in other species, too). If this decline continues, humans could face a mass infertility crisis in the next few decades. Other species may also face similar problems reproducing, which may affect their ability to recover in future once industrial civilization collapses.

CO2 emissions are just one of a whole host of environmental problems created by cars, and all that goes with them (land destruction, pollution, and CO2 emissions from mining materials to make cars and batteries; pollution from refining these materials and manufacturing components; habitat loss from roads and car-related infrastructure; etc.). Replacing gas-powered cars with EVs might slightly reduce CO2 emissions (depending on many factors, this may or may not always be the case), but does nothing to address the many other devastating impacts created by the 1.5 billion cars on planet Earth. The only long term, sustainable solution to these problems is to reduce and then eliminate cars entirely. No human on Earth had a car until a mere 135 years ago—we managed to survive as a species without them for 350,000 or more years. We can do so again.