It’s Green to Keep Your Old Junker | The Case for Keeping Your Old Car

Now that you’ve built your home off the grid and planned your sustainable garden, what are you parking in the garage? Green transportation, of course! My best guess is that you’re picturing a Toyota Prius. I have something else in mind. I’ve been driving a pre-owned 1996 Dodge Caravan for almost eight years, and with the current climate of “greening America,” I’d like to make the environmentally sound case for continuing to drive a trusted, rusted relic.

I’ve had no car payments in almost six years, an important economic consideration right now. With minor repairs, my super-comfortable, teen-repelling (so not cool) ride has rolled over 225,000 miles in the U.S. and Canada.

Of course, I live with the knowledge that Canadian border officials won’t let my wheels back into the country again (ironic that the border patrol of the #2 emissions polluter in the world lectures me on my emissions level), but, hey, I love Canada. So I rent a car or take the bus over the border now.

Then there’s the “embarrassed by my ride” factor when I park next to a Prius at our local green grocer and emerge head down, moving away from the slightly offended look I perceive from the hybrid owner. Am I just being paranoid? Am I bad for taking guilty pleasure in TV’s South Park “Smug Alert” episode where Kyle’s father bought a Toyonda “Pious” and moved the family to San Francisco, where “smug” had become a bigger pollution problem than smog, with kids taking drugs in order to deal with their parents’ “smugginess.”

Seriously, besides the fact that I LOVE MY CAR and am a deeply satisfied driver, each time I grab the steering wheel of my super-comfortable, super-dependable, super-hauler van, I keep in mind that there’s a strong case for keeping our current cars running.

Here’s the lowdown on the environmental impact of either keeping your current car or buying a new hybrid or low-mileage vehicle. I’ve lifted most of the information that follows from the EarthTalk website.

Better Fuel Efficiency Doesn’t Guarantee a Greener Lifestyle!

From a green perspective, keeping your old car running and maintained as long as you can is totally a green option, especially if it’s getting decent mileage, when you consider the significant environmental costs of manufacturing a hybrid or electric car.

A 2004 analysis by Toyota found that as much as 28 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions generated during the lifecycle of a typical gasoline-powered car occurs during its manufacture and transportation to the dealer. Remaining emissions occur during driving, after you take possession.

Your current car has already passed its manufacture and transport stage, so the car’s remaining environmental impact has to do with its remaining footprint with you as the driver against that of a new car’s manufacture and transport.

The Environmental Dost of Hybrids and Electric Cars

Don’t forget that the new hybrids—despite lower emissions and better gas mileage—actually have a much larger environmental impact in their manufacture, compared to non-hybrids. The batteries that store energy for the drive train are not friendly to the environment, because having two engines under one hood increases manufacturing emissions. An all-electric vehicle is only emission-free if the outlet providing the juice is connected to a renewable energy source, not a coal-burning power plant, which is more likely, according to my Alliant Energy bill.

Another consideration in this discussion is the environmental impact of disposing your old car. There are environmental impacts even if your old car is junked, dismantled, and sold for parts.

If you’re wide awake at night worrying about your current car’s fuel efficiency or emissions, it’s easy to assess with these online sources:

• The government website provides fuel efficiency stats for hundreds of different vehicles dating back to 1985.

• and can help you track your mileage and provide tips to improve fuel efficiency for your specific vehicle.

• takes it a step further, making projections about annual mileage, fuel costs, and fuel efficiency based on your driving habits.

Consider All Options

If you don’t need the green statement of parking that Prius profile in your drive, one option is to simply buy a used car that gets better gas mileage than your existing one. From environmental vantage points, postponing replacement purchases—of anything, not just cars—and keeping what’s already made out of the waste stream delays the additional environmental costs of making something new.

You can always cover ground under your own power. Last spring I parked my van for almost four months after purchasing a bike outfitted with a rear fender carrier rack and baskets. Over the summer, with the extra daylight, I tracked almost 400 miles a month of pedaling around town on small errands, grocery shopping, work commutes, and cool morning and sunset pleasure rides. Side benefits included a much-needed supply of fresh air and exercise added to my deskbound work routine.

The Same Principle: Appliances

What about replacing old appliances with new energy-efficient ones? There’s probably enough information on that topic for another article, so instead, visit and check out their May 21, 2008 blog archive posted by Jessica Jensen on “Buying Eco-Friendly Appliances.” FYI, if you do have to replace an old appliance, consider ditching the refrigerator first. It’s on all the time and soaks up the most energy.         

Mo Ellis is an artist and freelance writer who just returned from Expo West, the west coast Natural Foods exhibition, totally obsessed with Ruby Jewels’ organic ice cream sandwich.

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