May is EcoDriving Month. I don’t know who decided this, but it’s fine with me if designating a month will encourage drivers to learn strategies for lessening their fuel consumption and emissions while driving. In fact, EcoDriving USA is an advertiser on Fake Plastic Fish this month. Click the ad on the left sidebar to learn tips for driving and maintaining your car in a conscientious manner.
Keep in mind, however, that EcoDriving USA is a project of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. So while the site gives strategies for better driving, it never mentions the idea of driving less to begin with. Avoiding rapid stops and starts is a good idea. Walking, getting on your bike, or taking public transit are even better.
I’m not here to tell you that driving is bad. I don’t own a car myself, but that doesn’t mean I don’t drive occasionally. Some communities are set up for car-free living (like the neighborhood in Oakland where I live.) Others are not there yet. Whether or not you’re able to give up your car completely, I offer here a little disincentive for you to mull over…
Fumes from plastic inside your car could be as toxic as the exhaust fumes outside it.
The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan has this to say in its 2006 Automotive Plastics Report Card:
According to the American Plastics Council, the average vehicle uses 250 lbs of plastic. A significant proportion of this is used to make interior auto parts such as seat cushions, armrests, steering wheels, wire insulation and dashboards. Many of these plastics are made with harmful chemical additives, such as phthalates in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). These additives off-gas and leach from plastic parts contaminating the air and dust inside vehicles, putting drivers and passengers at risk. Many of the plastics are also not easily recycled and therefore usually end up in landfills or incinerators where their chemical additives contaminate the land, water and air. Incinerating these chemicals creates dangerous byproducts including dioxin, a carcinogen that is linked to serious reproductive, development and immune system problems.
The “2006 Automotive Plastics Report” grades auto makers in three main areas: 1) Use of bio-based materials; 2) Improving interior air quality; and 3) Reducing the use of PVC. Toyota, Honda, and Ford come out ahead of the other companies, but none of them receive an overall A or B grade.
In other words, you can invest in the most fuel-efficient car possible, but there are other environmental health issues to consider. In fact, plastics are being used more and more to make cars more fuel-efficient, so it doesn’t seem like we’ll be moving away from them any time soon. According to SPI: The Plastics Industry Trade Association:
Auto makers choose plastic parts for their durability, corrosion resistance, toughness, ease of coloring and finishing, resiliency and light weight. Plastics reduced the weight of the average passenger car built in 1988 by 145 pounds. That saves millions of gallons of gas each year and will save the energy equivalent of 21 million barrels of oil over the average lifetime of those cars. By the 1993 model year, over 250 pounds of plastics were used in the average vehicle.
Do we want to subject ourselves to offgassing from plastics inside our cars in an attempt to increase fuel efficiency? (Personally, I never understood the attraction to the “new car smell” which we now know is a result of these chemicals. It always just gave me a headache.) Or can we solve both problems with one solution: spending as little time inside them as possible.
Living in a transit, bike, and walking-friendly town makes living without a car easy for me. For those times when I need to travel to a location too far to bike and not serviced by public transit, or if I need to move a large item from one place to another, I have a Zip Car membership. Zip Car and other car-sharing companies allow users to have a car when they need one, parked in a convenient location, and much easier to reserve and pick up than a traditional rental car. And since car shares charge by the hour, you can pay for and use the car for as little as one hour or as long as necessary. Gas and insurance are included in the price.
Michael and I both have never owned cars since we moved to the Bay Area, I in 1989 and he a few years later. And until recently, the decision had nothing to do with environmental concerns and everything to do with saving money and avoiding the hassles of maintenance and insurance and parking tickets. This decision does limit our housing choices, as we make it a priority to be near BART or other major transit lines. But generally, being near BART also means being near walkable shopping and other conveniences we wouldn’t want to do without.
In the next few posts this week, I plan to write about the pros, cons, and feasibility issues of walking, biking, and public transit. How many of you are taking steps to limit your time spent in automobiles? What are your strategies? And what are your challenges?