A photovoltaic car captures solar energy at a charging station.
When most people think of the negative impacts of driving, they think of the emissions from the car’s exhaust, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere in the form of combusted fossil fuels, but mechanic and sustainability advocate Giles Kirkland describes how much more there is to it. The problem with cars is much greater than just exhaust emissions: the use of metals, rubbers, fuel sources, and attitudes all need to change to create a more sustainable driving culture. Here’s how.
A car’s body, engine parts, catalytic converter, and other internal components are all made of metal. Environmental impacts bookend metal production: both the extraction and disposal processes significantly harm the environment. Metal extraction can drastically affect the quality of air in the surrounding area, disfigure surrounding land, and cause flooding and soil erosion. Its disposal is at least as damaging: when not recycled, metals end up in landfills, contaminating soil, groundwater, and producing methane.
An increased demand for metal -- specifically aluminum, which many manufacturers are now turning to -- means increased production. We should focus on recycling in order to meet this greater need. Some companies have begun recycling projects; Ford recycles enough aluminum to produce 30,000 trucks every month. But efforts like Ford’s should be implemented throughout the industry, and they are just the beginning. Studies of the worldwide production of aluminum show the upward trend in production; consumers should be aware and manufacturers should be addressing the effects of increased consumption.
An aluminum recycling plant
There are many rubber elements in a vehicle, most notably the car tires, as well as drive hoses and various engine parts. Rubber itself can be produced naturally, but the problem lies in the plant, which causes companies to turn to cheaper -- and less sustainable -- alternatives. The Hevea rubber tree requires a hot, damp environment, restricting it to a ‘rubber belt’ that puts it in direct competition with farming and other organic production and makes farming rubber expensive. For this reason, numerous car companies have turned to synthetic rubber, which is produced with oil.
But there is progress on this front: companies like Toyota are developing biosynthetic rubbers and companies like Goodyear are experimenting with converting Guayule shrubs into rubber, an exciting solution because these shrubs allow for the fully natural creation of rubber while avoiding competition for particularly fertile land.
On the consumer side, drivers should know that it’s possible to fully recycle their tires. The right recycling plants (for those in the NYC area, you can drop off your tires at the closest NYC Department of Sanitation Monday-Saturday, 8-4) can recycle not only the rubber but also the textile carcass and inner metal lining -- drivers should look up a plant near them.
Petrol and diesel require harmful extraction and combustion processes. As consumers get excited about alternatives, it’s important to note that even these more sustainable models have their consequences, and we must continue to innovate in order to find a truly viable alternative.
Looking at electric vehicles, for instance, it is clear many companies favour lithium batteries. This technology has proven popular elsewhere, so this makes sense from a design and engineering point of view. However, while the batteries don’t cause emissions, there are many problems with lithium, including the process of mining and extracting the resource. Since these batteries don’t have an infinite shelf-life, this makes the power source another short-term goal, rather than a long-term, permanent solution.
Protesters rally to reduce fossil fuel consumption.
Finally, truly reducing the impacts of driving necessitates a profound shift in driving culture. In many parts of the world, driving is seen as a social, cultural and economic requirement. Some reports are hopeful, showing a trend towards alternative methods of transport, including cycling in cities and mass transit. In the UK, cities have put out proposals for long and short term plans to reduce cars on the street: Birmingham Connected, for example, is a 20-year transport plan to invest in mass-transit infrastructure, walking roads, and bike lanes. Under Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio, hundreds of miles of bike lanes have been installed in NYC; now there are over a thousand miles and counting. Other cities have been busy brainstorming creative solutions, like Paris’s no car day, Mexico City’s car-free main thoroughfare each Sunday, and Bogotá’s car free Fridays, now institutionalized with a referendum.