The environmental cost of owning a gas-powered car

Susan Robertson
Jul 6 · 6 min read

I am recently newly full time employed, so recently purchased a second hand e-bike, scooter style. I bought the scooter when I started my new job and I’ve been getting around on it. There have been a few learning moments and I still have to psych myself up for some corners even though I’ve clearly learned how to take them and never really had any problems with them.

But you shouldn’t drive an electric bike in the rain, which limits its usefulness given I don’t live in a desert.

My e-scooter. I wish it were rainproof.

My bike came with a cover that you can wear over you AND the bike in the rain, but if you drive through a big puddle the water can cause damage to the system so it’s really for those moments when you’re caught out and still need to get home. If I ride it to work, I can park for free in the bike cage. However, the bike cage is open air, so if it rains during the day I’d be running out of a meeting to throw the cover over my ride.

The scooter also has limited storage room so if I need to take a dog to the vet in an emergency situation it won’t do the job. If I need to buy a massive package of toilet paper that will last me the next six months, or a couple of pieces of lumber for a household fixit job, the scooter won’t cut it. It won’t do me much good in the winter when it won’t be safe to drive around on my two-wheeler anymore.

So after I got my first pay cheque, I went car shopping. I found out pretty quickly that the price for second-hand hybrids was outside my price range. I went for a hatchback with a manual transmission that felt good to drive.

It’s mine now, and now I am remembering how overwhelming the environmental impacts of a car were to me the first time I bought one. The impacts go well beyond the CO2 emissions. Let’s take a look at the other things that come out of operating a vehicle.

Production

According to The Guardian, the carbon footprint of producing a new car is roughly equivalent to an average household’s carbon footprint for three years. The Guardian reports that for an average mid-sized car, the production cycle generates 17 thousand tonnes of CO2. The impact is split between assembly (12%), metal extraction (33%), and rubber manufacturing(3%), and then the rest of the production cycle including running an office with its photocopier etc. The Guardian reports that for some models of car, the manufacturing of the machine creates more greenhouse gases than operating it for the lifetime of the vehicle.

Volkswagen and Honda are greening their facilities in the production of new vehicles. Tesla is a greener option and not just because it runs on electricity.

In Canada, if you choose an electric vehicle, at around 55,000 km, the car generates net emissions savings including the manufacturing of the car AND disposal at the end of its useful life. For a gas-powered vehicle, there is no possible way to end up with a net reduction in carbon emissions.

Given that the majority of greenhouse gas impacts from car manufacturing come from the mining industry, no matter how green the plants become, there is still a significant impact on the environment from the production of new vehicles.

About 80% of a car can be recycled. On average a new car has about 25% of the steel is recycled.

This article has a great summary of what is recycled out of old cars in Europe, Canada and the US and how much of that recycled material is used in the manufacturing of new cars.

By buying a gas-powered vehicle second hand, I have not added more green house gases from the manufacturing. However, I am responsible for the operating emissions. According to this page, I’m generating about 250 g of CO2 per km of driving. I expect to drive around 10,000 km per year so that’s an annual output of 2,5 tonnes of CO2 per year. This site generated an estimate of 2.9 tonnes so I’m in right ballpark.

Top Gear says that I would need to plant six trees a year to offset my emissions. My backyard would get crowded pretty quickly, and I don’t think the City of Ottawa would appreciate my taking up room in the nearby park to plant trees.

Oil changes

Every 3 months or 5000 km the car goes into the garage for an oil change. Clean oil keeps the engine clean and the car running smoothly. What happens to the old oil?

Old motor oil is no better for the environment than an oil spill so I was pleased to learn that motor oil is recyclable and that in most major centers in wealthier nations there are drop off sites where it is collected. It is re-refined into new oil products and burned as a fossil fuel in applications that call for lower grades of fuel such as marine fuel or it can be refined into diesel.

The re-refining process produces a sludge of additives and contaminants that is known as REOB, which stands for re-refined engine oil bottoms. REOB gets re-used as well, incorporated into asphalt.

If you get your oil changed by a mechanic, then they almost certainly are recycling the oil. If you do it at home, then you can drop off your oil at collection centers. An internet search will tell you how to find one near you. Here is a search site for the US.

Tires

The conventional wisdom is that you should replace your tires every five years or roughly every 50,000 miles, although most wear out in three to four years.

So that means every few years you, as an average car owner, are generating four significant bits of waste. The major ingredient in making tires is natural and/or synthetic rubber. About 35% of tire waste is recycled, leaving a mass of waste that can release a host of toxins into the environment. Piles of tires are at risk of fire. There was a famous fire in Hagersville ON, in Canada in 1990. The fire lasted 17 days, generating massive quantities of acid smoke that meant the city needed to be evacuated for weeks.

Hagersville Tire Fire in 1990. Source

An estimated 300 million tires are dumped every year in the USA alone, although it may be worse in the US than in Europe. The US is famous for its car culture. It’s far easier to get around in Europe without a vehicle. A fraction of tire waste is used in rubberized asphalt. In the UK, 30% of the 40 million tires that are discarded each year go into landfills. Some are burned, others are retreaded.

While industry continue to look for uses for recycled tires, the majority go to landfills around the world. They take up a lot of space, create unsafe piles, and create breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

If you drive a car, you have to replace your tires regularly. Failure to do so is a massive safety hazard. The chances are, your old tires are going to be around long after you die.

Summary

There are other ways in which driving a car impacts the environment, such as the need for car-based infrastructure in cities, parking lots, and so on. However, the oil, tires, and production of the vehicle are the three main direct ways in which being a car owner and operator increases my personal environmental impact.

I’m going to think about ways in which I can generate or purchase offsets. There are websites that let you buy offsets in the form of tree planting, supporting alternative energy projects, investing in clean energy technology and more.

In the meantime, I am going to drive across the city to Gatineau Park and go for a swim tomorrow morning because now I can get there and it’s summer and that is what summer is for.

Susan Robertson

Written by

Susan is an economist who worked in international development. Interested in food, board games, dogs, and development. Writing about whatever I feel like.

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