Dear EarthTalk: Short of buying a new hybrid or other “green” car, are there ways I can make my existing vehicle more eco-friendly? I bought my car recently and am not quite ready to give it up.
—Bettie Hilliker, Lansing, MI
Choice of vehicle may well be the biggest factor in determining the environmental impact of your automobile-based travels. But a considerable amount of energy is used—and pollutants emitted—in the production of any new vehicle, including hybrids and other more fuel-efficient options. As a result, many environmentalists believe that practicing good driving habits and performing adequate maintenance on an older car are probably better options for the environment than causing the production of a new vehicle.
According to the website GreenerCars.org, there are many ways to green up one’s driving habits. Obeying speed limits, utilizing cruise control and avoiding jackrabbit starts will maximize fuel economy and minimize tailpipe emissions while also preventing unnecessary wear-and-tear. Staying off roads during rush hours is also advisable, as stop-and-go driving burns excess gasoline and promotes smog. Opening vents and windows to cool off instead of using the air conditioner, an inherently inefficient appliance that consumes more fuel and leads to more emissions, is also good advice.
Drivers can also help minimize their environmental impact by keeping their cars well maintained. According to GreenerCars.org, getting regular tune-ups—where a qualified mechanic changes fluids and checks for and corrects problems such as worn spark plugs, under inflated tires, dragging brakes, misaligned wheels and clogged filters—can significantly improve fuel economy and minimize harmful emissions. GreenerCars.org also recommends seeking out low-rolling-resistance (LRR) replacement tires, which are specifically designed to improve a vehicle’s fuel economy, when the original ones wear out.
Beyond regular maintenance, a handful of small companies now sell green-friendly fuel additives that purport to increase fuel efficiency while reducing emissions. Such products—including Bluestar Environmental‘s Omstar D-1280X gas additive and Suntec Bio-Energy’s diesel additive—are normally targeted at fleets of vehicles, but individuals are free to use them as well. Owners beware, though: Use of such products could invalidate automakers” warranties, so read the fine print in your owner’s manual before pouring anything out-of-the-ordinary into your fuel tank.
Of course, getting out of your car altogether—or most of the time—is a far greener choice than driving even a well-maintained new or old car conscientiously. Some employers now offer federally-subsidized “commuter choice” incentives whereby workers can derive financial benefits by telecommuting (working from home), or by walking, biking, using public transit or carpooling to and from the office.
Another option is to join a car sharing service like Zipcar or Flexcar, whereby you pay a modest monthly membership fee and can then rent cars parked nearby by the hour only when needed. The companies operate on both U.S. coasts, as well as in major Midwestern and Canadian cities.