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Buy a New Car or Keep the Old: Which is Better for the Environment?

Does driving a more fuel-efficient car always help reduce your carbon footprint?

By

A large pile of junked cars.

There are significant environmental costs to both manufacturing a new automobile and adding your old car to the ever-growing collective junk heap.

Photo by Getty Images
Dear EarthTalk: Is it better to drive an older, well-maintained car that gets about 25 miles per gallon, or to buy a new car that gets about 35 miles per gallon?Edward Peabody, via e-mail

It definitely makes more sense from a green perspective to keep your old car running and well-maintained as long as you can—especially if it’s getting such good mileage. There are significant environmental costs to both manufacturing a new automobile and adding your old car to the ever-growing collective junk heap.

Does Better Fuel Economy Guarantee a Greener Lifestyle?
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 can occur during its manufacture and its transportation to the dealer; the remaining emissions occur during driving once its new owner takes possession. An earlier study by Seikei University in Japan put the pre-purchase number at 12 percent.

Regardless of which conclusion is closer to the truth, your current car has already passed its manufacture and transport stage, so going forward the relevant comparison has only to do with its remaining footprint against that of a new car’s manufacture/transport and driver’s footprint—not to mention the environmental impact of either disposing of your old car or selling it to a new owner who will continue to drive it. There are environmental impacts, too, even if your old car is junked, dismantled and sold for parts.

The Environmental Cost of Hybrids and Electric Cars
And 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 no friend to the environment—and having two engines under one hood increases manufacturing emissions. And all-electric vehicles are only emission-free if the outlet providing the juice is connected to a renewable energy source, not a coal-burning power plant, as is more likely.

How to Determine Your Car’s Fuel Efficiency and Carbon Footprint
If you want to assess your current car’s fuel efficiency or emissions, there are many services available online:

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

  • Websites TrackYourGasMileage.com and MPGTune.com can help you track your mileage and provide ongoing tips to improve fuel efficiency for your specific make and model vehicle.

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

  • If you have an iPhone, you can keep track of your car’s carbon footprint with the new “Greenmeter App” from Hunter Research and Technologies. The program uses numerous variables to make its calculations on-the-go as you drive, including weather conditions, cost of fuel, vehicle weight, and more.
Consider All Options Before You Decide
If you simply must change your vehicle, be it for fuel efficiency or any other reason, one option is to simply buy a used car that gets better gas mileage than your existing one. There’s much to be said, from many environmental vantage points, about postponing replacement purchases—of anything, not just cars—to keep what’s already made out of the waste stream and to delay the additional environmental costs of making something new.

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

EarthTalk is a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine. Selected EarthTalk columns are reprinted on About Environmental Issues by permission of the editors of E.

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