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The environmental impacts of auto restoration


Restoring vintage cars and being environmentally friendly are not necessarily mutually exclusive things. In fact, with a little understanding it becomes quite apparent that ensuring older vehicles run correctly has a far less ecological impact than constantly running out and replacing cars.

While I often say it as a joke, there's some truth to the statement: "All of our projects are 100% Post Consumer Recycled Waste." What happens to old cars? Well, it used to be that they would sit out in "boneyards" and sink into the soil, rotting away. These days, industries have been developed around rescuing valuable parts from these vehicles and then recycling the remains. So, somewhere out on the road are 5 Prius that were made from the recycled steel of one Studebaker.

Environmental Cost of Raw Materials

That being said, one aspect of the new car is the environmental impact caused by it's manufacture. This impact is far greater than a little smoke coming out of a tailpipe. And, yes, Saturn may advertise zero waste manufacturing facilities, but what about the acquisition of the raw materials? So, let's take a moment to look at the most common manufacturing products used in modern cars: Steel, Plastic, and Aluminum

While steel is the most frequently recycled material in the United States it is also the material with the greatest world-wide demand. To obtain new steel iron ore must be mined. The most common form of mining iron ore is strip mining. Now, all mining has an effect on the environment, and if done poorly the effect can be devastating. To add to this, steel is made from iron and carbon. The smelting process for steel uses both iron ore and coal. So, both items must be mined from the earth. Then they need to be transported from the mining site to the smelter. During the smelting process the pig iron is injected with oxygen to obtain the correct iron/carbon ratios. The output of this process is mild steel, Carbon Monoxide (CO) andCarbon Dioxide (CO2) Once smelted they again need to be transported to where the steel will be used and finally transported to te site of final use & assembly (the car factory). Depening on the locations these items may be shipped by truck (high polluter), ship (high polluter) or rail (variable).

Next we have plastic. Most vintage cars, because the advent of plastic use is relatively modern, have little to no plastic in the vehicle. Modern cars have significant amounts of plastic. Now, while plastic is recyclable the reality is that over 90 percent of plastic materials wind up in land fills. Do you know what the primary ingredient is to manufacture plastic? It's petroleum (a.k.a. oil). So even if we reduce our dependency on foreign oil for gasoline purposes, we have a significant dependency when it comes to generating plastic, and plastic is used a lot more extensively in modern cars than one may think. Not only is it part of the interior, door handles, and other items, but it's also the material used as fill within the crumple zones.

Aluminum is similar to steel in the fact that there is a significant mining operation involved. Aluminum is removed from the earth in the form of Bauxite ore. To extract the aluminum from the bauxite an electrolytic process is performed. This process requires significant amounts of electricity. The cleanliness of the source energy can vary wildly depending on how the electricity is generated. Finally, most of the world's aluminum is mined and refined in Australia or China. To distribute this across the world we have the same transportation issues as steel.

Total Environmental Cost of Ownership

When we account for the total envionmental cost of ownership for a modern vehicle, the car has a significant embedded cost. These environmental costs are inherent to all vehicles. The difference that we see is that an older car which has been used for a number of years has amortized it's environmental cost in direct correlation to the number of miles driven (with additional accounting for continuing cost of maintenance). A new vehicle has not had the opportunity to amortize out it's environmental cost. Now what really becomes interesting is comparing modern fuel economy vs. older cars. The common perception is that old cars get poor gas mileage or at lest much less than modern cars. The current sales pitches are touting 30-ish mpg. Well, the geo metro exceeded this, the late 80's Honda CRX exceeded this, my 1953 Studebaker Champion gets 33 mpg, and the 1937 Fiat Topolino achieved over 40mpg. Even my 1974 Jensen Healey can achieve high 20's when not driven hard, and that's a sports car. Your modern "fuel efficient" car doesn't get much more or better gas mileage. This means the total environmental cost of ownership takes a significant time to even come close to offsetting the current imact of an older vehicle that's well maintained.

Here at the shop

Here at the shop we do our best to be as environmentally friendly as we can. And these days, with all the recycling locations and places that support recycling it's become a lot easier to do so. All vehicle fluids are recycled by either returning them to where they were purchased or working with a local commercial garage. Old tires are returned to the tire shop and the environmental fees are paid. Any scrap metal that isn't returnable for a core value to the auto parts store is gathered, sorted and sold off to the local metal recyclers (and depending on what you're recycling you can earn enough to buy some more parts or at least some beer. :).

With a little research it's easy to avoid using nasty chemicals too. Citrus based cleaners, CLR, baking soda, vaseline, vinegar and other natural products work just as well as harsh chemicals. Soda blasting is now becoming a viable environmentally safe media blasting alternative at home.

And, being as we're based in Arizona solar power is next on the list. With an excess of 300 sunny days per annum I believe that we can install a solar grid that will not only account for the electrical draw of the shop, but also of the family house and even possibly provide a few buck back a month for more parts.

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Contents copyright 2008, 2009 - Jody F. Kerr

All references to They Might Be Giants are fan references only. John & John I hope you don't mind! And if you're ever in Phoenix stop by for a visit!

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