The mere act of owning a car places you in relationships with countless car parts. According to information published by Toyota, a single car can have as many as 30,000 parts. They run the gamut from the large items, such as steering wheels, windshields and headlights, down to the smallest bolts and screws. Whatever their size, these car parts have a direct effect on the world around us during their entire lifecycle, from the manufacturing plant to the recycling plant.
How Car Parts Affect the Environment
From cradle to grave, car parts impact the environment. At each stage of a car part’s life, there are implications for pollution, waste and energy consumption.
Manufacturing stage. The cycle begins with the manufacturing process. Car parts are made chiefly of metals such as steel, aluminum and copper, along with various plastics.
Most of the parts in today’s cars are made using steel. Steel may be made using mined iron ore, but it can also be made from recycled material. As you might imagine, recycled steel is easier on the environment than steel created from mining, as it uses less energy and creates less pollution. Fortunately, steel recycling is common in car manufacturing. World Auto Steel, the automotive branch of the World Steel Association, estimates that on average, about 25 percent of the steel used in vehicle production is recycled.
Operational stage. The next step in the cycle involves the time during which the cars are in use on the road. Cars create most of their pollution during this stage, primarily via air pollution.
Though powertrain choices impact air pollution in a very clear-cut way—an electric car will always create fewer emissions than a gas guzzler—car parts play a key role in fuel economy and the pollution that can result. One the biggest ways this comes to light is through the actual weight of the parts: Lighter vehicles require less fuel and are less of a burden on the environment.
This is one reason why there has been so much excitement regarding the growing use of aluminum in car manufacturing. Aluminum is lighter than steel, and this weight difference can mean big improvements in gas mileage. When Ford redesigned its F-150 pickup for the 2015 model year, it used aluminum for the truck’s bed and body panels. The carmaker estimates that choosing aluminum for these car parts instead of steel resulted in fuel efficiency gains of as much as 29 percent.
Retiring stage. The final step in the cycle happens when a car reaches the end of its useful life. During this stage, car parts are either disposed of or recycled, with recycling being the more sustainable solution. More than 70 percent of a car’s parts are recyclable, and if you sell your car to a salvage yard once it stops functioning, it will be able to make use of the car’s salvageable parts while putting some money in your pocket.
The steel from old cars is shredded, filtered and sold to steel mills, and the rubber from the tires is employed in materials used to make pavement, playgrounds and new tires. Car batteries—which contain toxic lead—may be reconditioned for the resale market, or they may be sent to lead-reclaiming plants where the lead is extracted to be used in the manufacture of new batteries.
Manufacturers Making Greener Choices
In recent years, manufacturers have made huge strides in producing vehicles employing sustainable car parts.
One of the leaders on this front is Ford. Ford has used aluminum quite powerfully to reduce the weight of car parts and thus improve fuel economy, with the most notable example being the current generation of the carmaker’s F-150 pickup. The F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the land for decades, and the fact that Ford was willing to take a risk and tweak the formula of its venerable cash cow by upping its use of aluminum parts speaks volumes as to Ford’s commitment to seeking out greener solutions.
Ford has also set the pace in experimenting with the use of eco-friendly materials derived from plants and waste products in the production of certain key vehicle components. Ford has been using soy-based cushioning in the seats and headrests of its vehicles for years, and you’ll find this material employed all throughout its lineup. Certain Ford models utilize recycled denim as interior padding and to help reduce road noise. Storage bins found within the Ford Flex are made from byproducts of wheat production, the oil-based materials once used in the doors of models such as the Ford Escape have been replaced with resin from kenaf—a plant indigenous to the tropics. Most recently, Ford has joined forces with tequila maker Jose Cuervo to explore how byproducts from the agave plant can be used to create sustainable composites that could help reduce vehicle weight and lessen the amount of petrochemicals used in the manufacturing process.
Toyota helped bring hybrids into the mainstream with the launch of the Prius over a decade ago. The carmaker has further advanced its eco-friendly goals over the past decade with the use of sustainable car parts, like bio-based plastics—materials derived from plants that are kinder to the environment than conventional plastics. You will find these plastics in seat cushions used in models such as the Prius, Corolla and RAV4, and they’re also used by the company’s Lexus marque in models such as the RX 350 and CT 200h. When it comes to the metals used in its cars, Toyota has developed a technology to recycle copper with 99.96 percent purity, and this recycled copper has been used in over 200,000 of the brand’s vehicles.
The Toyota brand has also made huge strides in reducing the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) both during and after the manufacturing process. Car components used in the cabin can emit VOCs that create that familiar new-car smell. Unfortunately, these VOCs can be quite toxic, and they can leave you with symptoms such as headaches and nausea. Models such as the Prius and Camry Hybrid feature seats made with a “SofTex,” a synthetic leather material that weighs half as much as genuine leather, while producing 99 percent fewer VOCs than conventional synthetic leather.
A Sustainable Future
While Ford and Toyota have been at the head of the pack in the charge to find sustainable solutions, they are by no means the only carmakers involved in this effort. A wide cross-section of brands, from Hyundai to Volvo, use eco-friendly car parts in their vehicles.
If you’re a consumer seeking to make greener choices, you’ll find strong options available. The future is sure to bring even better alternatives, as manufacturers continue to hone and grow their research and development efforts in this area.
Warren Clarke is a consumer advocate and car expert who writes for CARFAX about automotive trends in sustainability and technology.
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