A Greener Choice?
Hybrid technology in automobiles has been available in the U.S. market since 1999, and since 1997, over 5.8 million hybrids have been sold worldwide as of October 2012. For a distinct portion of consumers, the appeal of hybrids comes from the world we live in. Automotive pollution has drastically altered our environment, and those who want to do their part in conserving our planet look to hybrid technology as the answer. Many believe that hybrids are light years ahead of standard automobiles, when in reality they are not as clean or economical as you may think.
Being environmentally friendly, eco-friendly, or green has become fashionable in today’s society. In response, companies bring so-called “Green” products to the market without taking necessary measures to ensure their offering is truly environmentally-friendly. Current attention to our environment has caused the public to take a closer look at their own impact, and what good business wouldn’t use this opportunity to their advantage? No matter what a company claims about their offering’s eco-friendly status, a product is not green unless attention is paid to the environmental impact of its use and eventual disposal as well as its manufacturing, material sourcing, and distribution. National Geographic defines the term “Eco-friendly” as “earth-friendly or not harmful to the environment.” From their conclusion, it can be inferred that, for example, a product made with materials that were mined in an unsafe manner is not environmentally safe.
Raw materials can be considered green for a number of reasons, but ultimately, a green material does not adversely affect the environment as a result of its production or use. Materials harvested from common and fast-growing plants such as bamboo or hemp range from basic fabric products to flooring and other hardwood alternatives. These products hold an eco-advantage because they can be grown easily and will decompose easily when they are eventually disposed of. This gives them an advantage over common standard materials like standard hardwoods, which take much longer to renew, and synthetic textiles, which do not decompose as efficiently and can often be produced under circumstances that sacrifice eco-friendliness for economy and accessibility.
The manufacturing stage of a product’s life is important to take into consideration, as the byproducts of manufacturing can often leave a negative impact. A manufacturer can reduce their environmental impact by making changes in key areas of their manufacturing process. Utilizing renewable energy reduces the impact of the manufacturing process, as manufacturing often deals with specialized machinery that requires a great deal of power to operate. In addition, the use of renewable and/or recycled materials reduces the amount of waste associated with the manufacturing process. Also, reducing the emissions produced in many common manufacturing processes (we’ve all seen a stereotypical factory with billowing smoke stacks) is a practice that has a positive effect on a manufacturer’s footprint. To put the impact of manufacturing into perspective, it is estimated that 10-20% of a car’s lifetime emissions are produced in solely the manufacturing stage. “Cradle-to-cradle” manufacturing is a system that many green manufacturers utilize that aims to decrease their impact. This system involves taking care in minimizing or eliminating resource use, waste, and pollution in manufacturing, and addresses every aspect of a product’s life, from product design to eventual disposal or possible reuse.
Product use can have both seen and unseen environmental detriments. Air pollution in the atmosphere as a whole or in the household is a well-documented issue. Automotive emissions, although still quite prevalent, have been reduced dramatically as the result of the utilization of cleaner engines and catalytic converters installed in exhaust systems to filter the gasses produced in fuel combustion. Many vehicles, including common standard models such as the Honda Accord, are designated as LEV’s, or low-emission vehicles. One great example of a product that has significantly reduced its impact in this area is hairspray. Adoption of pump spray bottles instead of aerosol cans was a vast improvement for hair product manufacturers. Unfortunately, there are often cases where manufacturers only decrease a product’s environmental impact in this area, and production and/or disposal impact suffer.
When the lifespan of a product ends, a green manufacturer has to consider how it will impact the environment. Taking steps in the material sourcing and manufacturing process can have possibly the greatest impact on where a product ends up. If a manufacturer takes the time to source materials that will biodegrade efficiently or be reused, the result will be quicker, easier, and cleaner disposal. Recycling is also a highly effective, as it decreases our use of landfills and reduces the need to utilize resources that are more time consuming and/or polluting to replenish. Being mindful of all the aspects of the products we use allows us to make educated choices concerning our personal environmental impact. If a product is created with cognizance to all of the ways it can affect the environment and addresses each issue accordingly, it can be considered a green product. It is simply not enough to focus on one aspect of a product’s lifespan and not consider its overall lifetime impact.
The environmental impact of automobiles has been a concern for many years. Although measures have been taken in the past to reduce the impact of American drivers, such as the emissions control laws of the 1970’s, many are concerned that this is not enough. To many, widespread adaptation of hybrid technology is the answer to their concerns over the condition of the environment. The problem with this concept is that hybrids can affect the environment in many ways other than emissions produced by everyday operation. This leads me to the conclusion that choosing a hybrid car over a similar standard car will not have a decreased impact on the environment overall.
Production of a hybrid vehicle is a much more complicated process compared to the build process of a traditional car. For all vehicles, it is estimated that 10-20% of their lifetime emissions are released during the manufacturing stage. In addition, lightweight vehicles made of materials such as aluminum rather than steel often require much more energy to produce. Vehicles such as the Toyota Prius have to utilize this type of technology, as weight savings are essential in order to compensate for the added weight of battery packs and electric motors that supplement the preexisting 4-cylinder motor that is used as the primary power source in the Prius. These efforts in weight savings still yield a car that is just shy of 3,000 lbs. Toyota has openly admitted in the past that production of the Prius emits more carbon dioxide and requires more energy than production of a standard car.
The materials used to produce hybrid batteries are another subject of concern. Typical hybrids use either nickel-hydride or lithium-ion batteries that rely heavily on the mining of nickel and copper, among other rare earth metals. Cars that utilize a nickel-hydride battery pack also have the additional blight of producing about 22 lbs. of sulfur oxide, compared to about 2 lbs. in a conventional car. Lithium has its drawbacks as well, as it is sourced cheaply from China, who is able to lower costs by ignoring environmental safety in their mining processes. China has even gone as far as to admit to the New York Times that rare earth mining has been abused in China, and that it has “caused great harm to the ecology and environment.”
In addition to all this information regarding the production effects of hybrids, they are still not emissions-free. If you combine the effects of producing a hybrid vehicle with its still-present automotive emissions, it can be asserted that hybrids are not more beneficial to the environment than a standard car.
For years, hybrid automobiles remained relatively obscure vehicles in the American market, but in the wake of environmental and economic concerns stemming from fuel cost spikes, eco-consciousness has grown to become more than just an afterthought in the minds of many American consumers, especially those looking to purchase an automobile. Consumers have chosen to move away from conventional full-size vehicles for a variety of reasons, but many still feel that just downsizing to a smaller or more fuel efficient vehicle isn’t enough. It is primarily for this reason that hybrids have grown to their current popularity; hybrid drivers are looking for more than just an economic solution in the car that they drive. Hybrid drivers are greatly concerned with the environment as well, and to some, hybrids are seen as easily superior to standard cars in that aspect.
In an article published by Online PR News, part of the heading states that “Hybrid cars are the most environmentally friendly cars.” It then goes on to state that “A Hybrid car is a perfect solution to problems like deteriorating environmental conditions.” It’s very easy to take one look at emissions tests and make the assumption that a hybrid has a much smaller impact on the environment than a conventional car. My disagreement with this argument is that the author is not taking into consideration the overall lifespan impact of hybrid cars.
It all starts at the production stage, especially for hybrids. A large portion of the pollutants released over any car’s lifetime are released at the manufacturing stage, consisting of, on average, anywhere from 10-20% of lifetime pollution. Manufacturers, such as Toyota, have admitted to the fact that much more pollution is created in the manufacturing of hybrid cars compared to conventional cars. This can be attributed to the production of a much larger amount of electronic equipment, especially electric motors, specialized braking systems, and hefty battery cells. All of this additional equipment, combined with standard gasoline components, requires automakers to use substitute materials such as aluminum for weight savings. Aluminum use also increases a car’s environmental impact, as it requires more intensive processes to work with in comparison to steel.
The materials required for the production of hybrid batteries are another environmental factor that isn’t taken into consideration. Cobalt, a highly important component in hybrid production, is sourced from volatile regions such as the Katanga province of the DRC. Serious environmental damage has been caused in this region, and in many others, as a result of increased demand for the multitude of exotic materials required for hybrid powertrain production. An article from Car and Driver’s Aaron Robinson makes the following metaphor that strongly supports the concept that electric technology in vehicles has a much deeper impact than many realize: “……a wave of new EVs will arrive, touted as clean transportation for socially responsible types. You know these people; they’re the ones in Whole Foods carefully reading the package labels. Unlike food, cars don’t come with a detailed ingredient list. Does anyone living in our modern consumer paradise care if their vehicle purchase helps pay for murder and environmental ruin in Africa?” That being said, I would like to politely disagree with the notion that hybrid cars are a “perfect solution.”
To wrap things up, Hybrids are not the answer to our air pollution woes, because they create additional issues in the process. If hybrid manufacturers truly assessed their vehicles and made changes to successfully call their cars “green,” they’d have to look at a number of factors. First, they would have to ensure that the necessary materials required for production are sourced in a way that A) doesn’t damage ecosystems from careless mining, and B) doesn’t have detrimental effects to social environments. Next, they have to assess their production methods. In a world where nine out of ten people carry mini pocket computers, engineers are surely capable of developing new auto manufacturing methods that release less pollution, especially in the production of batteries, motors, and other electrical components. Lastly, care has to be taken in the disposal of the hefty batteries that hybrids haul around is done in a mindful manner. We’ll see in the next five to ten years, as batteries begin to fail, how this issue is resolved. Perhaps one day, hybrids will be the solution to our environmental woes, but today is not that day.
“Ways to Reduce Air Pollution” http://www.epa.gov/oar/oaqps/peg_caa/reduce.html, EPA, epa.gov, 6 March 2012, 2 April 2013
“Renewable Energy & Clean Technology: Keys to a Revitalization of US Manufacturing & Job Creation” http://cleantechnica.com/2012/04/15/green-manufacturing/#oYAFXtfsUGOb9ABR.99 , Andrew Proteus, cleantechnica.com, 15 April 2012, 2 April 2013
“A HANDY REFERENCE GUIDE TO THE 20 GREENEST MATERIALS” Luanne Bradley, ecosalon.com, 29 June 2009, 2 April 2013
“What Does Eco-Friendly Mean?” http://greenliving.nationalgeographic.com/ecofriendly-mean-2415.html, Daniel Holzer, Demand Media, National Geographic, 2 April 2013
“Does hybrid car production waste offset hybrid benefits?” howstuffworks.com. Dave Roos. 6 Dec 2010. 9 Apr 2013
“Out of Africa: Where Electric-Vehicle Batteries Come From, Part II”http://www.caranddriver.com/columns/aaron-robinson-out-of-africa-where-electric-vehicle-batteries-come-from-part-ii . Aaron Robinson. Car and Driver. 11/2010. 4/16/2013
“Hybrid Cars – Eco Friendly Cars”. http://www.onlineprnews.com/news/52075-1281347364-hybrid-cars-eco-friendly-cars.html. Online PR News. 8/9/2010. 4/16.2013