In 2010, it was reported that NASA had singled out automobiles as the largest net cause of global warming. This study focussed on emissions of cars on the road but did not take into account the considerable negative environmental effects of manufacturing the vehicle nor of disposing of the vehicle. If all this was taken into account, the magnitude of the problem would be many times more serious than the study reported and thus extend the magnitude of the automotive problem relative to any other cause of global warming.
The automotive industry around the world is pumping billions of dollars into building greener vehicles and should be commended for this. So, too, the recycling industry has managed to turn 75% of scrapped vehicles into re-usable components, most importantly re-cycled steel for new cars. About 90% of discarded cars are recycled to some extent. The scrap/recycling industry, too, is also to be commended for their efforts.
Unfortunately for the planet, the automotive industry is so massive that what escapes the recycling loop is of scary proportions. For example, each year in North America, we can calculate conservatively that 10-12 million cars reach the end of their useful life. In this paper we will use 10 million to be very conservative. If 90% of them are subjected to recycling efforts, 1 million vehicles - a number so huge that if put end to end, the annual line of unrecycled vehicles would stretch over 3,600 kilometres - are left to blight the landscape, rust away, leak contaminants into the soil and do so for years or decades to come.
Additionally of the 9 million cars that are 75% recycled, it follows that 25% of their components do not actually get recycled (usually because there is no profitable market for the component or the materials, or the steel is too corroded). Therefore, the equivalent of 2.3 million whole cars (25% of the 9 million recycled vehicles) join the 1 million that totally escape recycling. This means that in North America you have a total of 3.3 million “car equivalents” added to the pollution problem in North America each and every year, year after year, after year. The annual line of discarded car equivalents now becomes 12,000 kilometres long. That is a line of wrecks stretching almost three times the distance from Toronto to Vancouver – each year.
To bring it closer to home, in Ontario 600,000 vehicles reach the end of their life every year . Using the same recycling proportions as above but for just Ontario, the line of car equivalents would be almost 700 kilometres long, equivalent to roughly three times the distance from Toronto to Kingston (or to help you visualize it, that would be about the same as plugging three lanes of the four lane 401 from Toronto to Kingston with scrapped vehicles each year).
Now add the rest of the world where, generally, recycling practice is not so well developed and we have genuine reason to worry about what the vehicles we discard are doing to the planet.
The manufacturers and environmentally responsible recyclers are doing a lot to reduce the environmental problems caused by our appetite for new vehicles and how we use them. However, in Ontario only 1/3 of scrapped vehicles are currently handled by scrapyards who are members of an Association (Automotive Recyclers of Canada) that requires members to de-pollute their vehicles.
There is no legally binding regulation that requires de-polluting as of this time.
What can we do as individuals? Much has been written about more intelligent, less wasteful vehicle usage options (car pooling, public transit etc.) but little public discussion has occurred on how more intelligent, less wasteful vehicle maintenance can allow each and every car owner to make a contribution to a solution. We do not just travel in vehicles. We consume them. We consume them by not maintaining them as well as we could and by