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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2005
Table of Contents
Interview: Robert Bullard
92 Ways of Looking at a Tree
Decoder: Crocodile Tears
Reduce, Reuse, Rejoice
Let a Billion Flowers Bloom
Recycling Resurrected
Think Outside the Bin
Down in the Dumpster
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
Good Going
Sierra Club Bulletin
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hey mr. green
Mr. Green's November 1, 2005, Mailbag

Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers

Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail

Battery Bonus

Mr. Green's stingy editor didn't give him enough room in his November/December column to fully enlighten his readers about car batteries. While the nickel-metal hydride varieties used in hybrid vehicles are clearly superior, even the lead-acid batteries in a regular car or truck are less of a toxic burden than they once were: 90 percent of those discarded in the United States are recycled in facilities regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. A bigger concern is than what happens to these batteries when they die is where they're born: Millions are made in countries with weak or nonexistent standards for handling lead. For more information on the international effort to set tougher standards for battery production, visit

Getting in Accord Over Cars

Mr. Green's recommendation that Heath in Los Angeles trade in his 1990 Honda Accord for a new Prius hybrid drew a follow-up inquiry from the prospective car buyer--and a flood of other responses.

Hey Mr. Green,
I was surprised by your answer, as I fully expected you to tell me to keep the Accord. One other consideration: Once I trade in the old car, the dealer is likely going to resell it to a buyer who otherwise (given the low value of the car) would have been taking public transportation or carpooling. Won't this be a net loss for society because we'll have the gas usage and CO2 emissions from my Prius on top of those from the Accord? The only alternative seems to be sending the Accord to the scrap heap, which would be like a mortal sin for me. Given my fiscally conservative Midwestern upbringing, I hate to replace or destroy anything until it is completely worn-out. Thoughts? --Heath

Hey Heath,
Having grown up on a farm, where nothing ever got thrown away, I share your trepidation. But it's a pretty safe bet that the guy or gal who buys your Accord won't be abandoning public transportation. Instead, he or she will probably be junking a barely running hoopty. Getting it off the road will result in a net improvement for the environment. (Besides polluting the air, that ancient beater was probably leaking way more of its toxic bodily fluids into the watershed than your well-maintained Accord was.) The reason I'm so confident of this scenario is that the vast majority of Americans can't or won't take public transportation. Until our transit system improves, you don't have much to worry about.
Mr. Green

Hey Mr. Green,
Your point about hybrids and used Hondas is largely incorrect. See my piece on the topic, "A Little Rain on the Prius Parade," at --Jason

Hey Jason,
Thanks for getting in touch. I understand your points, but I don't think they invalidate my conclusion.

You say that the Prius does not actually get the mileage touted by its boosters. But remember, miles per gallon can vary a lot depending on people's driving habits--how fast they go, whether or not they keep the tires properly inflated, if they avoid unnecessary idling, etc. Drivers who get lower mileage in a Prius are probably going to get lower mileage in an Accord too.

Second, while I agree that there are many, many other ways to reduce CO2 emissions (eschewing air-conditioning and overheating, for starters), I don't think it should be a question of either/or. Owning a Prius doesn't prevent people from turning off the lights, using fluorescent bulbs, turning down the air conditioner and the heater, weather-stripping and insulating their homes, drying their duds on clotheslines, riding bikes or using mass transit, or taking more elaborate measures such as installing double-glazed windows, a flash water heater, solar water heating, or solar panels. Hybrid-car ownership and energy conservation are not mutually exclusive. True, as you say, emphasizing hybrids might distract people from other methods of conservation. But isn't it just as likely, if not more so, that when car owners see the benefits of their more efficient autos, they might become more energy-conscious in general?

Third, while carbon dioxide emissions are a very serious threat, they aren't the only environmental ill associated with oil. Drilling and refining oil diminish air and water quality, burning it creates air pollution that causes crop losses (among other problems), and the stew of particulate matter, ozone, and other compounds coming out of tailpipes contributes to heart and lung disease. Some observers peg the medical costs of this pollution at $70 billion a year. A comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of hybrid cars would have to take these elements into account.

Some observers also choose to factor in the cost of deploying troops to the Middle East to secure America's oil supply. If you agree with the commentators--both conservative and liberal--who see that military activity as a gigantic government subsidy for the oil industry, a hybrid looks like an even better bet.
Mr. Green

P.S. I hope that somehow we can replace America's irrational, inefficient, and morally bankrupt energy policy. I don't understand why the businesses that suffer from high energy prices--along with the industries that could profit from R&D and the manufacture of alternative-energy products--don't rise up and rebel against the political stranglehold of the heavily subsidized oil, auto, and roadbuilding industries. What happened to self-interest? Are corporations so bonded by a common culture that they can't bring themselves to break ranks and dare to agree with environmentalists once in a while?

Something for you to ponder is how culture often overrides economic self-interest. Thomas Frank's recent book, What's the Matter With Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, examines how this phenomenon affects ordinary voters, but it may also influence our capitalist leaders.

Hey Mr. Green,
Your calculations on fuel and energy consumption assumed that Heath's old Accord would be replaced by the new Prius. But it won't actually be taken off the road. His Accord will be sold to someone else, so the Prius will end up adding another car to the equation. Therefore, Heath should drive the Accord until it drops dead, at which point he can truly replace it with a hybrid.

Of course, this cost analysis is for a bad old car, and I believe there are many more good old cars out there. The value of an old object generally increases with time if it has been respected and well treated. My 1971 Chevy pickup is a good old car. I bought it in 1985 and drove it for 16 years. During that period, I invested about $300 a year in repair costs. It is sitting on the curb today, waiting for a new engine and a paint job so it can continue its life as a resource-efficient object. I used my vehicle for recreation and in my profession. I put 1,000 miles a year on that truck in situations where nothing else would do. My other automobile is a 1990 four-wheel-drive Suburban (a bad old car). I paid $7,000 for it four years ago and have invested about $16,000 in it. That's not exactly in line with the cost analysis I presented above but neither is the cost of a new four-wheel-drive Suburban. --Brian

Hey Brian,
I've gotten some interesting, even hostile, e-mail about my pro-Prius calculations, though nobody has accused me of being a diabolical sellout on Toyota's marketing payroll. With your detailed, thoughtful analysis, you should probably be running the U.S. Department of Energy. Once we're rid of George W. Bush, you should apply for the gig.

In my answer to Heath, I focused on concerns about energy consumption. I did factor in the energy required to manufacture a new car using life-cycle analysis--a way of looking at the environmental impacts of various products from manufacture to disposal--from several sources, including the Franklin Associates' Life Cycle Inventory database. I was also aware of the capital-cost argument: that it might not make economic sense to buy a new car because the capital lost over its life may exceed the costs of running an older car. And the money laid out for a new hybrid car could arguably do more good if spent on other technologies--e.g., solar panels, insulation, organic agriculture, efficient appliances--that alleviate environmental problems.

All of which is to say that I agree with your figures and wish now I had at least included a sarcastic remark or two about cost. I haven't owned a car for years, and the few I've had were extremely pre-owned. The capital-cost argument against them is one of the most compelling. The damn things suck you dry. It's now 53 cents a mile and rising to own and operate a car. In a lifetime, the average American squanders a whopping $300,000 on automobiles--unless, of course, that lifetime is shortened by 1 of the 43,000 fatal car crashes in the United States each year.

On the 1971 Chevy truck, we're in complete agreement. As I recommended, a person should buy a hybrid "unless you drive very little." At a mere 1,000 miles a year, it would be crazy to replace the pickup. But I don't think buying a car every few years is at issue here, since the guy would have to rack up 50,000 miles on the Prius before it even began to make a difference.

The syndrome of buying a new car when you don't really need one seems to me a separate issue created by Detroit's marketing strategists. They've convinced us that you must have a brand-new vehicle to your maintain self-esteem, sex appeal, family values, and appreciation of the great outdoors, not to mention American freedom itself and what George W. Bush bumptiously calls the "American way of life"--a way of life, by the way, so profligate that it would horrify our frugal ancestors, except maybe the upper-class few who occupied thrones during the Gilded Age.

As for the Accord, I think we're also in agreement. Note that I said, "trade it in." I didn't assume that car would be junked but that it would be purchased by somebody whose own jalopy was so far gone that he or she's facing diminishing returns, not just in repair costs but in lost time and anxiety over when it will break down next. It's hard to price these psychological factors, but if a car's unreliability drives the owner to meds, it's probably time for a "new" ride. Alternately, the used Accord might be bought by a kid who's just coming onto the car market.
Mr. Green

Hey Mr. Green,
You forgot to consider whether disposing of the Honda--and any hazardous materials that might be contained therein--would still make it worthwhile to immediately switch to a Prius. Might it not be better to drive the Honda until it dies, at which time there may even be a more environmentally friendly replacement available? --Kent

Hey Kent,
I actually considered dealing with the question you pose, but it turned out to be nearly impossible to answer because there are so many aspects and variables to it. To give just one example, old cars leak a tremendous amount of oil--in total, it's equivalent to a dozen Exxon Valdez spills a year. The amount of haz mat you'll reduce by getting a leaky old car off the road might equal or exceed the amount released when it's junked.
Mr. Green

Hey Mr. Green,
I'm currently driving a 1990 Corolla wagon (with 276,000 miles on it), and I can consistently get 40 to 42 miles per gallon in the spring, summer, and fall, though it drops to the 35- to 37-mpg range in the winter. My wife's 2002 Prius gets 47 to 49 mpg in the summer (its tank best was 53 mpg) and likewise drops to the mid-thirties in the winter. Overall, that gives the Prius about a 25 percent benefit, rather than the 100 percent you claimed it would get against Heath's Accord (which is just as capable of 40 mpg as my Corolla). So, best-case scenario, at 50,000 miles the Prius has burned 1,000 gallons of gas, my Corolla or his Accord, 1,250 gallons. Even with the $2.50 per gallon that we're paying here in Colorado, that's only $3,125 more . . . a long way from the $23,000 a new Prius runs. I'm a big fan of all the hybrids (I teach auto technology in high school). But for people with cars that are already economical, I advocate cheaper fuel-saving techniques instead: Driving slower; learning about "glacial" acceleration, aerodynamics, and momentum control; and, of course, parking the suckers and walking or bicycling at every opportunity. For the record, I also do an energy-saving column in the Colorado Environmental Coalition's newsletter. I heartily approve of yours but simply wanted to clarify a point or two. --Bob

Hey Bob,
Everybody should follow your sage advice, regardless of what they drive. And thanks for sharing the interesting numbers. You're getting hella outstanding mileage on that Corolla. The Department of Energy rates the 1990 model at only 30 miles per gallon.

It sounds like your superb driving habits have something to do with your mileage success. It obviously makes a big difference if a driver plugs along at 45 instead of 75, keeps the tires properly inflated, avoids jackrabbit starts and unnecessary engine idling, coasts to a stop rather than approaches at full speed and jams on the brakes, etc. These sensible maneuvers save a lot of energy--and money.
Mr. Green

Hey Mr. Green,
I also have a 1990 vehicle, which I have been carefully maintaining since it was new. In this throwaway society, I think we should use things for as long as possible. --David

Hey David,
I totally agree with your point. But as a long-suffering servant of the environment who struggled for many years to keep alive a Vega--Detroit's feeble effort at a small car that could compete with efficient imports during the early-1970s energy crisis--I also realize that there's a point of diminishing returns. Eventually, it takes more resources to keep a machine sputtering along than it would to replace it. My Vega's life-support system ended up demanding more service input than it could return. It was sort of a metallic Terry Schiavo, except that it loudly demanded extraordinary measures.

In studies I've seen that track the life cycle of a specific product, the inputs required to dispose of old cars don't appear to be a big factor. And though I don't have comprehensive data on junkyards, they seem to do a lot of recycling. Still--and I think this is an important point to reiterate--if you don't drive much, it may be better to keep the old car. As I wrote in my original column, the Prius would have to go about 50,000 miles before it began to offset the energy consumed in its manufacture.
Mr. Green

Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra magazine. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.

Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at

Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.

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