It’s a common conversation not only among car buffs but among environmentalists too; what is better for the environment, a new car or a used car? Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t nearly as straight forward as you might think. In fact, you can essentially argue it either way depending on the criteria you use and your ultimate definition of green. Let’s take a look.
In order to discuss “what the greenest vehicle is” you have to look beyond its daily operating characteristics, things like gas mileage and emissions; you have to look at what was involved in making the vehicle in the first place – the total effect on the Planet. New cars are made up of thousands of components and they are sourced from all around the world. And, most of them come from natural raw materials (not recycled). So that means metals like iron and copper come from large-scale mining operations. Unfortunately, these operations are disruptive environmentally and often involve toxic chemicals. Plastics are no better. Most polymers are formulated from petroleum products and involve plenty of waste and toxicity during their processing cycle. And then there is the emission of greenhouse gases that accompanies all these processes. Studies have shown that between 14 and 28 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions generated during a car’s entire lifecycle occur during its manufacturing phase.
Is a used car better? Remember Greenbrier Motor Company of Lewisburg, a local Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer in Lewisburg, WV, says, every time a consumer opts for a used car over a new one, that’s one car that’s already passed through all these phases we discussed above and one less vehicle headed to the scrap heap. The remaining issue to consider is that older cars pollute more than new cars and many are much less gas thrifty. The question is, if you use this used car for let’s say some 100,000 miles, will the total energy consumed and pollutants created be less than a new car? Hard question to answer because it depends on what sort of new car you are comparing your hypothetical used car to.
What about an EV?
But what if you buy an electric vehicle (EV)? After all they are very energy efficient and generate nothing in the way of greenhouse gases. Well, they clearly win in that department but EVs actually have a significant environmental impact when they are built compared to standard cars. Not only are there all the metal and plastic pollution issues, those lithium-ion, lead-acid, or Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries are no friends of the environment. This, however, may become less significant as mining and manufacturing techniques are refined in the future.
The other major issue with EVs is that technically they are emission free only if the electrical power comes from a source that is renewable, like solar or wind. Today, it’s likely that the local electricity will come from a coal- or natural-gas burning power plant. Naturally those utilities generate their own pollution so that needs to be integrated into the total equation.
As you can see, the answer to the question “What’s more green: a new car or a used car?” isn’t an easy one because it depends on so many variables. In the future, we may see this argument tilt one way or another more as environmental regulations change and manufacturing processes become more efficient and less polluting.