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Is Buying a Used Car More Environmentally Responsible?

In recent years, the focus on the environment has shifted from one of simply awareness to one of action. Once you know better, you can do better. Consumers are striving to be more conscious of what they are purchasing and they are vocal about it. They are beginning to shift their habits to utilizing resources like reusable water bottles, water filtration systems, energy-saving appliances, organic food and more. But they aren’t limiting their buying power purchasing organic vegetables. Being environmentally friendly is a choice that extends to every area of one’s lifestyle, including choosing a new-to-you car. Buying a used car saves you money, but does it lessen your environmental impact? There is no short answer because it is much more complicated than a simple yes or no. Here, we aim to break down the debate and help you to make the best decision for you.


Environmental Impact

When manufacturing a new car, materials like steel, rubber, glass, plastic, paints, and all the other parts and pieces that go into producing a car leave a footprint. In a study conducted by Toyota in 2004, approximately 28% of carbon dioxide emissions can occur during the manufacturing process and transport of the car to the dealership. That’s a pretty big environmental impact before the car is even on the road.

Even vehicles advertised as environmentally friendly can have a large carbon footprint. For example, a hybrid car can have a larger impact during the manufacturing process because of how it is designed. Think about it, two engines under one hood. While it lowers the impact of emissions while on the road, how long would it take to make up for the output of carbon dioxide during manufacturing? Even electric cars, while seemingly a more environmentally responsible option, can have a negative environmental impact if the outlet in which they are charged is not connected to a renewable energy source.


Silver Lining

Purchasing a new car isn’t all bad. Cars built today are equipped with better gas mileage and lower emissions rates right off the assembly line. Those made in the 1990’s and earlier have exponentially higher carbon dioxide emissions rates due to less stringent standards during manufacturing at that time. Newer cars can also be built more efficiently, causing less wasted raw materials and lower emissions at the manufacturing stage, as well as increased fuel efficiency and lower emissions rates on the road. Additionally, more recycled and recyclable materials can be utilized in manufacturing. A newer car also means using less oil, fewer new parts, and less intensive maintenance. The manufacturing and installation of these components all contribute to the overall automotive carbon footprint.


Post Mortem

Have you ever thought about what happens to your car after it’s not your car anymore? Depending on the condition of the vehicle, it may be sold to another owner on a used car lot, in which case it gets a second life. It may also be sold for parts and scrap, which is a form of recycling. But your car may also be disposed of, a process which can be as detrimental to the environment as the manufacturing of it was.

While over three-quarters of today’s average car can be recycled, including the steel frame, there is still a negative environmental impact attached to dumping your used car in a landfill. The list of things to consider when getting rid of a used car can be daunting. First, the battery must be properly recycled so that battery acids do not leak into the air or groundwater. Another factor in the discarding process is what to do with the tires. Not only do tires take a long time to decompose–between 50 and 80 years–but they also release toxins into the air and groundwater throughout the process of decomposition. Additionally, if they are incinerated, they also release toxic gases into the air such as carbon monoxide, dioxins, and furans. While the amount of gas may appear small when looked at with each individual occurrence, they still pose a significant health threat, especially when you add up how many tires are disposed of in a given year (some 290 million in the United States according to the EPA and the Rubber Manufacturers Association). Lastly, accidental tire fires can cause pollutants to escape into air and groundwater. These tire fires can burn out of control very quickly or they can be a slow-burning fire that continues over the course of several years. Currently, there are several states that have no restriction on disposing of tires and sadly only about 35% of tire rubber is being recycled.


How to Help

There are several things you can do to make your current car more efficient and lower your carbon footprint. One way is to track your mileage. There are many websites that will help you track your mileage, as well as apps available for smartphones (Android and iOS) to track mileage and carbon footprint. is a website that will tell you the estimated mileage for your car or any car you are interested in purchasing. If you do decide to purchase a used car, make sure it has better gas mileage and lower emissions than the car you are letting go.

If you live in a metropolitan area, chances are you have public transportation. Utilizing trains and buses reduces your individual carbon footprint and lengthens the life of your existing car. Setting up a carpool arrangement with friends or coworkers also drastically reduces your impact. When possible, walk or ride a bicycle to and from your destination. This is a bonus alternative because it will not only make you healthier, but it is better for the environment.

Here are some additional tips for reducing the environmental impact of your used car:

  • Avoid roof-top cargo boxes
  • Be aware of your driving style (i.e., speeding or intense acceleration)
  • Make sure tires are inflated properly
  • Use correct motor oil
  • Keep engine well-tuned
  • Use cruise control
  • Make fewer trips by combining errands
  • Remove unnecessary weight from your car
  • Do your research when purchasing a new car

So is buying used cars more environmentally responsible? Honestly, it depends more on the driver than it does on the car. Extending the life of your car, being an informed driver and consumer, and disposing of your old car responsibly can all lower your carbon footprint. Thus making buying used cars better for the environment and ultimately, better for us all.