Updated: May 23, 2022
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. 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. 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. 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. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-used-cars-are-more-ecofriendly/