The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

May 5, 2009

Eco-Driving is great. But how about less driving in the first place?

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?

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13 years ago

I am looking for information on the possible fumes given off 2005 Honda dashboards, The interior window of my Honda must be cleaned at least 2x a week of the fog is so bad you have difficulty driving. Any info on this matter would be most appreciated. Even just a link will do. Many thanks. Charles

Lara S.
14 years ago

I use my bicycle to go almost everywhere, but I travel a lot and though I travel by bus I can’t stop noticing the huge plastic waste in it. They give you food in plastic (although it’s a 4 to 6 hour trip)and disposable plastic cups. Sometimes you can’t even eat the sandwich, because it’s moldy! Disgusting…

knutty knitter
14 years ago

this year eldest is riding his bike to school. Next year youngest will try that out too. He says he can do it even though its 8 kilometers each way and he will be 11. There is a great new bike path so it should be fine. That cuts most of my trips down to about 5 a week plus the odd visit. I hope to get an electric bike for most of these. I do wish there was better and cheaper public transport!

viv in nz

14 years ago

How about horses as an alternative transportation? Where I am living it looks like horse carts are still a viable service industry. Car ownership is low and people hire horse drawn wagons to move house, to deliver garden supplies and building supplies and as you see in this picture, mopeds :)

Green Lifestyle
14 years ago

Its a dilemma really isn’t it? Save weight and increase fuel efficiency or ditch the plastics and go for a heavier greener product.

There must be a material out there which is just as light and degrades better.

Im sorry to say though I can’t rid of driving all together, its needed for my work.

14 years ago

I drive.
I drive a super sub compact that gets great mileage and wasn’t made in Detroit- It doesn’t cost much in maintenance, Maybe one of the reasons Detroit is in trouble. Should’ve stuck with the EV1 there gm! ANyway when not driving my car I drive a small honda scooter, They(or rather-I) have yet to find a convienant bus route to my work.

14 years ago

I have been having a bit of a battle with myself lately about my car driving. My car gets good enough gas mileage, but I am forced to drive more than I would like.

Since losing my full-time job over a year ago I have been working several part-time jobs at a time, almost all of which I need to drive too. Its pretty silly, cause I live in chicago and public transportation is decent here.

This summer I am working a summer camp in the west suburbs of the city, and have made a pact with myself to take the train and then bike from the train station to the farm at least three days a week. It will be good for my health and good for the planet!

Who knows what will happen with working in the fall though. As much as I would like to give up the car, and as much as I complain about having one (mostly to my poor boyfriend) at this point in my life I’m just not sure I can make it happen.

My boyfriend on the other hand has NEVER owned his own car, and hasn’t driven one regularly since moving to Chicago after high school. What a role model I have in him :-)

14 years ago

People are always saying that having a car is ‘necessary’ in LA. That seems like something that can and should be fixed.

I had a short and very inconvenient period of carlessness in rural Canada. I was working at the Halifax International Airport. There was no public transit from the nearest community and it was way too far to walk and it would have been dangerous to bicycle. I paid a coworker some gas money to pick me up. He was a sweet old man but he always had an encore performance of his stories when he picked up his second passenger 15 minutes after me.

I had a year long and mildly inconvenient stretch on a small island in the Med. Hot climates can make long walks almost impossible. I lost almost 20 pounds that year.

I plan on staying carless here in North Africa. Public transit is great and taxis are affordable as well. I think I will be able to organize my life so that I don’t have to go anywhere during midday in the summer.

Anarres Natural Health
14 years ago

My family and I walk and bike everywhere.

For the past 3 days, my 3 years old has been learning to ride a bike.

We also sail in my partners bost/home and take ferries, tender boats and public transit.

We live in a neighbourhood that’s thoroughly walkable. Motor vehicles aroud here are status symbols. If you are driving a car here, you’re either driving through from the suburbs, are disabled, remarkably lazy, or a drug dealer. Although more than half of people here own a car, 2/3 of trips are made on foot or by bike.

All of the stupid cars that park at the bottom of my street are drug dealer or suburbanite SUVs. Sometimes, we can’t get our bikes or cart out from between the parked cars that aren’t ours. Kinda makes you feel like committing a property crime.

I could go on…

The Green Cat
14 years ago

On another note: my boyfriend just started a week of training on a temporary job. The training takes place about 2 miles from his apartment in Jersey City. As he put it: It’s a little too far to walk but too close to justify driving. His solution was to pick up a cheap pair of used rollerblades to travel back and forth. Unfortunately, on the first day out he got going too fast on a downhill and managed to fracture one of his fingers on a fence. Luckily he’s not one to be discouraged and will be blading (albeit more carefully) to training anyway.

Crafty Green Poet
14 years ago

I’m lucky to live in a city with good public transport and i live a 15 minute walk from walk. I’ve never owned a car and can’t drive. On the other hand its not so easy for some people. You make some excellent points in this post.

14 years ago

I could investigate getting a bike but finding a place to store it would be interesting… we are already bursting at the seams. This would let me do some more local stuff without the car. Commuting by walking/bus would be more than an hour. If I could take my bike on the major bus route, it would be about 45 minutes. By car, 22 minutes.

Lets be honest, I don’t have so much free time that I can afford to double my commute.

I do other things like run errands on the way home. I go by just about any store I would want to go to without going off the route I normally drive. A few other stores like Whole Foods might be just 1 mile from my route. If the store is on my way home… then I don’t shop there on the weekend. I go to the closest stores that I can go to in order to purchase my product.

I could do more walking – like to the Natural Food store or the gym. Mostly time prohibits me. Before the kids arrived, we always walked to the gym on weekends and to other local stores. Now I am lucky to get to the gym… forget about walking!

14 years ago

My husband and I share a car, so we can’t both drive. We live in Davis, and I commute to Sacramento by riding my bike to the train station and then taking the train. Honestly, it’s expensive and if it wasn’t subsidized I don’t know if I’d do it. There is also a commuter bus as a back-up on days when I miss the train, but it only has three bike spots, which can be a problem. I try to bike when I go grocery shopping or run errands, but my errand-bike needs a lot of fixing up and I haven’t gotten around to doing it.

My husband, on the other hand, more often than not commutes WITHIN DAVIS by car (about 3 miles). It drives me nuts! He always says he’s running late and is trying to save time.

We drive most often on the weekend when we go on trips or visit my mom – there just isn’t a non-car alternative.

14 years ago

I confess, I drive a lot. I live in the suburbs, but more than that I have two kids to cart around. Regular tasks like, say, grocery shopping without a vehicle seem almost impossible to me when I also have a baby and 4-year-old to manage. And when I’m working being at the whim of public transit to make it for daycare pickup intimidates me.

The good news, though, is that because I’m on maternity leave right now and was recently laid off, I’m keeping driving to a minimum. Although I’m still not using many alternatives to my car, my mileage is very low.

14 years ago

Within 1000 feet (easy walking distance) of me as I write (and none of them in a mall): post office, 5 restaurants, 2 banks, car-rental agency, major grocery store, two pharmacies, two bakeries, public library, 2 paint stores, FedEx store, Office Depot, antique store, native-American crafts store, 2 car repair shops, woman’s clothing store, commuter rail station and bus stop, middle school, picture frame shop, yoga/meditation center, insurance agency, 2 guitar shops (one acoustic and one electric), a gelato shop, a Starbucks, a paper-goods store, a spice shop, a Big 10 football stadium (Northwestern). I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.

Lest you think this is a dense urban area without any greenery, here is a picture from the street one block from me.

All of this easy access I consider priceless. I don’t care about the price of gas or about commuting or the expenses and frustrations of car owning and yet it seems the whole country was in a rush to run to being stranded in places where you have to drive to everything. I never got that urge. Come on back, everyone, and be my neighbor. All is forgiven. :)

Barb in FL
14 years ago

Beth, I wish that I didn’t have to use a car to get to work! However, I work the night shift and am female,and don’t particularly want to walk or ride my bike 3.5 miles in the dark at 10:30 pm at night!

14 years ago

Green Cat ~
You remind me of this 'radioactive green cats' installation by Sandy Skoglund.

I live in a place with no bike lanes, no sidewalks and no bus system! Out in the sticks basically… However, I have resisted my husbands urging for me to get a minivan (we only have 2 kids!) in favor of my sedan.
I grew up in the city and used the bus system to go everywhere. I would really rather do that. Oh well.
I like the tips from the ecodriving page. I will follow them!

The Green Cat
14 years ago

I’ve always known that the “new car smell” was really just off-gassing plastic. I learned something new this weekend though. My boyfriend and I were driving to a friend’s house and I turned on the window defogger. He pointed out that the “fog” on the windshield was, in fact, from the plastic fumes from his dashboard and not from condensation. The thing that really stood out for me about this is that his car is several years old–not new! That plastic dashboard has been off-gassing for years! Yipes!

14 years ago

I only drive under 25 miles a week, and usually it’s way less than that. I don’t live in an area where it’s easy to be car-free, but I have worked to set up my life as such that driving isn’t a huge part of my day to day. Although, I do feel that my ability to do this is a luxury afforded by the flexibility in my career.

14 years ago

I agree with what you are saying. Unfortunately, not all communities were created with environmental responsibility in mind. If it weren’t for the great schools my kids are attending, I would move. I do try to keep driving to a minimum where possible and do other things to offset the transportation need.


14 years ago

You were way more diplomatic about eco-car month than I was about Hannah Montana Bananas! I obviously should learn some tact from you.

I’m glad you pointed out that where you live affects your ability to go car free. I am of course car free and loving it in London, but come on. You would have to be crazy to own a car and live in Central London. Environment has nothing to do with it. In LA I couldn’t not have a car … it was even something of a requirement for some of the jobs I took.

Lisa Sharp
14 years ago

I don’t drive. I have to be honest it’s for health reasons and not wanting to buy a second car.

My town is not one that is made for walking. I walk to the pharm once a month to pick up my meds but that is it. I could walk to a few more places but the neighborhood isn’t very safe for walking alone.

My husband is however working on learning to drive more eco-friendly. He has upped the gas mileage on the car by a lot. Which is great since he drives pretty far to get to work each day.