Friday, January 15, 2010

The Eco-Friendliness of Restoring Used Vehicles

My roommate and I had quite an adventure over the last two days.  Brian won a vehicle in a public surplus auction in Holbrook, AZ.  The vehicle had been seized by Arizona State Highway Patrol because of drugs found hidden in the engine manifold (yes, the engine!).  For about half of the Kelly Blue Book value, Brian has a "new" used vehicle that will require only about $200 in new parts to be running like new.

We left on Wednesday night around 5pm so we could get an early start on Thursday.  The drive was long but fun, and we ended up in Snowflake, AZ for the night, which is only about a 30 minute drive south of Holbrook.  Thursday (yesterday) we woke up and hit the road about 8am so we could be ready at the Navajo County government center when they opened at 9am.  After paying for the vehicle and transferring the title, Brian and I drove around to the car lot and picked up the vehicle.  Thus started our crazy drive home.  The truck he purchased was a bit too large for the towing dolly he rented from U-Haul, so we decided to drive home on the I-40 to Flagstaff, then down the I-17 through Phoenix to the I-10 for the home stretch into Tucson.  Several times we had to stop because we were worried about the truck slipping off of the dolly, and in general it was pretty nerve-racking.  But we got home safe last night at about 5pm, and it was a success.

So what does this have to do with eco-friendliness?  Why would my roommate need two trucks?  Well, he hasn't yet decided whether or not he's going to sell this truck after fixing it up, but if he does sell it, that is one less new car that needs to be sold.  If he keeps it, this truck will probably run better and last longer than the truck he has now, so either way it wasn't a bad purchase.  And if he spreads his driving out amongst both vehicles, both will last longer and neither will need to be serviced as often.

I am a firm believer in buying and maintaining used cars rather than just buying a new one.  The materials in a used car have already been manufactured, mined, etc., and so the only impact a used car has from this day forward is the cost of the gasoline and fluids and the here-and-there parts that are needed to maintain it. 

A new car, on the other hand, has a very long tail as far as environmental impact.  The metals from that car have to be mined from somewhere, and that mine has environmental impacts which the car is ultimately (at least in part) responsible for.  The other materials from that car have to be manufactured, and the factory that makes them is pumping pollutants and other toxins into the environment as well, which also add to the impact the car is having.  And don't forget the money spent on advertising... which you might not think of as an environmental impact until you remember how many car billboards you see everywhere, or car advertisments in magazines, newspapers, etc.  That paper and glue and everything else associated with advertising has to come from somewhere, and ultimately the environmental impact gets tacked onto the car because their purpose is to sell the new car every year.  Everything in and about a new car is causing some kind of NEW damage that must take place within the environment where a lot of damage has already occurred.  So it is my staunch belief that a working used car on the road potentially means one less new car on the road.  Sure, it isn't as fuel efficient as a new car might be, but burning gasoline isn't the only impact a car has during its lifetime.  In fact, the environmental impact of manufacturing a new car probably far outweighs the impact of keeping an older used car on the road.

I believe that a thought experiment can prove my point.  Imagine a scenario where there was a 10 year long ban on the manufacturing of new vehicles, and it started today.  All of the new vehicles that rolled off of the assembly line yesterday were the last ones that would be manufactured anywhere on Earth until January 15th, 2020.  All of the environmental costs associated with the manufacturing of a car would drop to near zero (not all the way to zero, there would still have to be some manufacturing of parts for the used vehicles, but not nearly as much as with pumping out a new line of cars every year).  So now the only environmental impacts you have personally associated with your car are for gasoline and maintenance parts/fluids.  You might be thinking "well that's still a lot.  Cars pump out a lot of CO2, more so if they're older, so how does this help the environment?"  Well, ask yourself this now.  How would you treat your car if you knew it had to last 10 years?  Even if you replace it, it's going to be replaced by another car that will have to last until January 15th, 2020, no matter what.  Wouldn't you drive it a little less aggressively?  Wouldn't you drive it less in general, to save on the wear-and-tear of consistent use?  I think the answer is yes.  My vehicle turns 10 years old this year, and I drive it ever more carefully each year because I know that it has to last me because I don't have the money to buy a new car.

I think there are other benefits to getting into a used-car mentality.  I think it encourages people to bike places, or use public transportation.  When you're worried about how long your own vehicle might last, you're more likely to want to "put the miles" on someone else's vehicle.  More people would ride the bus, or take some other form of public transportation, or even carpool, just to avoid the wear and tear on their own vehicles. 

So the next time you're in the market for a car (especially if you have any kind of knowledge about servicing a vehicle), instead of buying the consumerist hype about how good that brand new Prius is for the environment, maybe you should take a spin around the used car lot to see what might work for you.  And no matter what you end up buying, try to go into it thinking "what would I do if this car had to last me for 10 years, and I couldn't just buy a new one in 3 or 5 years?"  Not only will you be easier on your car, you'll be easier on the environment as well.


  1. great post, Kyle. Aside from the environmental benefits of buying/maintaining a used car (which you spelt out perfectly), there is value in knowing how to repair a car yourself.
    Just yesterday I bought a used motorcycle- partly because it's awesome, but also because my roommate is basically a mechanic and he'll help me to get it running. Learning those skills will save tons of money and will be a huge leap toward self sufficiency.

  2. Awesome!! What kind of motorcycle is it? I want to buy a Kawasaki KLR 650 myself. I love the idea of a dual-sport motorcycle... getting me back and forth to work AND taking me to trailheads on the cheap so I can go backpacking without spending a lot of money on gas.

    My roommate is also very skilled with mechanics, though he's not actually a mechanic by trade. I've had to do a few repairs on my Durango, and have a few more coming soon, and his guidance has taught me a bunch in the world of auto maintenance. We are both lucky indeed to have roommates with these skills to pass onto us.

    Mark, I'm impressed by the amount we have in common. Once I move up to Portland, I'll have to take a road-trip up to Victoria (or you down to Portland) so we can share a few beers and talk some permaculture. Thanks again for your faithful readership... you're exactly the kind of person I hoped to reach when I started writing this blog.

  3. I say we meet up in Portland... lots of brewpubs I want to try there!

    My bike is a 1980 yamaha special 400. Just big enough to get me around town. I'm super pumped about this project- I just tore it down to the frame, and once my roommate gets back to town we're gonna redo the carb.

    My roomie actually just bought a KLR 650. I think it's a '97. It was in pretty rough shape, but he took it down to the frame and sandblasted & recoated everything. Looks awesome now! Those bikes are so versatile, and really fun to ride. THey've got some balls, too...

  4. hey dude, been a while since you've posted. everything going well down there in the desert?

  5. Yes, things are going alright, just pretty busy with work. I'll be honest, I've been a bit distracted, and I haven't been doing much that is worth posting about. I have been feeling guilty and neglectful though, and I have some posts in the works in my head. Hopefully I'll have something new up soon.

    Good to hear from you! How's everything up in BC?