In a continuing effort to take better care of our planet, many people are considering the ecological impact of the items they purchase. Trees take in carbon dioxide (CO2) and expel oxygen (O2), which is useful to pretty much every living species on the planet, even those living in the water. Cars do the exact opposite – consuming O2 and expelling CO2 (among other toxins) – and it takes approximately 110 trees to counteract the carbon dioxide emitted by just one vehicle over its lifetime. To put that into perspective, there are 7.4 million vehicles registered in Ontario alone, so it would require 814 million trees to offset the 28 billion kilos of CO2 that those vehicles will produce over their 12-year (average) lifespan.
Earth has a finite amount of resources, and it’s up to us to ensure that the planet will be able to sustain life for future generations. To that end, each of us can make more environmentally conscious decisions. One of them would be changing the type of vehicle that we choose to drive. But which would have a lower “carbon footprint”, a new car or a used car?
● Burning 1 litre of gasoline produces 2.3 kg of CO2
● A vehicle with an average fuel economy of 9.4L/100km produces 2,163 kg of CO2 every 10,000 km
The Ecological Impact of Buying New Cars
“Nothing ages your car as much as the sight of your neighbor’s new one.”
– Evan Esar
Burning fossil fuel releases energy used to propel a vehicle down the road, but it’s also used to manufacture the auto in the first place. Creating this energy releases carbon dioxide and other toxins into the atmosphere. These environmental affects create a vehicle’s “carbon footprint”, which is a measure of its impact on the planet. According to a study conducted in 2004 by Toyota, 28% of the carbon dioxide emissions emitted over a vehicle’s lifetime are produced when it’s manufactured. A separate MIT study found that producing the raw materials needed to make an average-sized car (steel, rubber, plastic, etc.) releases 1,580 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Another 810 kg of CO2 are released when processing recycled materials. That doesn’t even take into account the amount of additional greenhouse gases produced by the car company’s assembly plants, or the freighter ships and 18-wheel car transporters needed to deliver a new car to the dealership. So Toyota’s numbers seem to be spot-on.
In the early 2000’s, over 14 million vehicles a year were being recycled in the U.S. & Canada. At the time, 75% of a vehicle’s weight was being repurposed as raw material to be used in other products. But instead of just melting everything down, automotive recyclers (aka salvage yards) remove reusable components (alternators, seats, airbags, etc.) from a junk vehicle, then they rebuild the part before re-entering it back into the supply chain. This auto part reuse keeps approximately 99.7 million kilos of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere, because a brand new version of that part doesn‘t have to be made. The recyclability of new cars is expected to exceed 85% by 2015.
The other 15-25% of a junk vehicle’s weight is sent to landfills, resulting in nearly 5 million tonnes of unprocessable materials (foam, certain plastics, electronic components) being buried in the earth in North America. Given the skyrocketing popularity of features like big touchscreens and hybrid batteries, an increasing percentage of that waste increasingly includes heavy metals and toxic chemicals needed to manufacture such features. In the time since those figures were tabulated, automakers have begun to take steps to reduce the amount of toxins used to make a car. Hybrid battery recycling programs are also being “fast tracked”.
The Ecological Impact of Buying Used Cars
So before a new car even hits the road, its very existence has released thousands of kilos of CO2 into the atmosphere. Then after chugging through countless barrels of fuel throughout its life, that new car then turns into a junk car and pollutes the earth one last time in the landfill. But another option is the ultimate recycling program that rose to popularity long before ‘buying green’ was even fashionable – buying a used car.
In contrast to new cars, used cars have already expelled the largest part of their carbon footprint. In a sense, keeping a used car from entering the junk car phase prolongs its final landfill impact. Naturally, a used vehicle’s carbon footprint does depend on the emissions from its engine and its overall condition. But other than that, the additional carbon footprint of a used car is essentially limited to the emissions created by the vehicles driven to and from the place where the used car is purchased.
In an effort to reduce the car’s environmental impact, automakers are starting to use more recycled and biodegradable materials. They’re also spending fortunes on component recycling technology that will significantly reduce the amount of hazardous and non-biodegradable materials polluting landfills. In the meantime, you can make a difference by driving responsibly (i.e., conserving fuel), and picking the most efficient vehicle based on your intended use, and considering if a used car will fit your wants and needs just as well as a new one.