Week of 12/17/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What are the most environmentally friendly and highest mileage cars on the market today? Also, are the batteries in hybrid cars recyclable?

—Shiela Gosselin, via e-mail

According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE) Green Book, an annual environmental rating of the best and worst cars, Honda and Toyota models led the pack as the world’s "greenest" automobiles for 2006. Not surprisingly, top honors went to a hybrid gasoline-electric vehicle, Honda’s Insight, which pairs an efficient electric motor with a gasoline engine to save gas and minimize emissions. Unfortunately, the Insight, launched in 1999, will soon be discontinued due to declining sales.

To determine a car’s rankings, in addition to fuel efficiency ACEEE factors in the pollution generated by a given vehicle based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions ratings. While the Insight does not have as clean an exhaust rating as Toyota’s hybrid Prius, it has slightly better highway mileage (56 versus 51 miles per gallon), making it the overall winner. Other top green models on ACEEE’s list include various versions of Honda’s Civic (particularly its natural gas version) and Toyota’s Corolla and Matrix. The Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Mazda 3, Chevrolet Cobalt and Saturn Ion also placed well.

Regarding batteries, hybrid advocates insist that the nickel-metal hydride batteries found in the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight and other hybrids contain far fewer pollutants than the lead-acid types present in traditional gas-powered cars. Furthermore, carmakers are keen to keep such batteries out of landfills, with Toyota even offering to buy back spent hybrid batteries for $200 so it can recycle them.

According to Toyota: "Every part of the battery, from the precious metals to the plastic, plates, steel case and the wiring, is recycled." Meanwhile, Bradley Berman of the website, HybridCars.com, reports that, "Honda collects the battery and transfers it to a preferred recycler to follow their prescribed process: disassembling and sorting the materials; shredding the plastics; recovering and processing the metal; and neutralizing the alkaline material before sending it to a landfill." Automakers are scrambling to create smaller, more efficient and less toxic batteries for hybrids and other vehicles, Berman reports.

Another option for green consumers is a diesel car that runs on biodiesel, a fuel derived from renewable crops (and which works seamlessly in most diesel engines). AutoWeek magazine reports that a biodiesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI has the best overall fuel economy of any new car on the road today under "real-world driving conditions" (which include, among other things, traffic congestion, use of air conditioning and high speeds). In AutoWeek"s test-drive comparison, the Jetta TDI achieved nearly 50 miles per gallon using B20 biodiesel (two parts vegetable oil, eight parts regular diesel), edging out even Toyota’s Prius, which only scored 42 mpg using gasoline.

The EPA is revising its own testing procedures for the 2007 model year to try to get more in line with real world driving conditions. As a result, fuel economies displayed on window stickers will change. Some cars, especially smaller vehicles and hybrids, will lose as much as 12 percent in their ratings.

CONTACTS: ACEEE’s Green Book Online; AutoWeek Magazine’s "Are We There Yet?"; hybridCars.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the status of horse slaughter in the U.S., which is done primarily to export the meat to Europe?

—J. Worden, Monroe, CT

Much to the delight of horse lovers everywhere, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 503) in September 2006 outlawing the sale and transport of horses for slaughter for human consumption. A related bill, S. 1915, is currently under review by the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which will recommend whether or not to send it up for debate and a vote. Animal advocates are optimistic that the Senate will follow the House’s lead and make the bill the law of the land in 2007.

Long a revered symbol of the American West, horses have enjoyed special status among domestic animals for many decades. The horse in North America was once considered just a form of livestock to be utilized for farm work or transportation, but today it stands as a status symbol for those wealthy enough to own and board one. And TV and movie Westerns, along with the popularity of modern horseracing, have changed their image from faceless beasts to individual pets with unique physical and personality traits.

According to the International Fund for Horses, about 65,000 horses—racehorses, workhorses, wild stags and family steeds—are slaughtered each year in the U.S. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) pegs the number closer to 100,000. Meanwhile, Agriculture Canada reports that about 62,000 horses are slaughtered annually in Canada, 40 percent of which are sent across the border from the U.S. Most of the meat processed is sold in Europe and Asia, while a small amount is used to feed zoo animals domestically.

HSUS says that conditions in the slaughterhouse are stressful and frightening for the horses, and that the slaughtering process itself, which is similar to that for cows and pigs, causes unnecessary duress for the animals. Also at issue is the way horses are transported prior to slaughter. The Equine Protection Network is seeking to ban the use of double-deck trailers to transport live horses. The trailers are designed to move pigs and cattle, and don’t provide horses with the headroom to stand comfortably. The U.S. Department of Agriculture created rules governing horse transport in 2002, but animal advocates say they failed to outlaw the trailers outright and still allow horses to be transported for up to 28 hours with no food, water or rest.

The National Horse Protection Coalition promotes a number of alternatives to slaughtering horses, including establishing retirement farms and developing programs to donate, sell or lease unwanted animals for therapeutic riding. Horses could also be sold privately, they say, under binding legal agreements that they not be sold for slaughter. The organization says that even humane euthanasia performed by a veterinarian is preferable to subjecting horses to the cruelties of transport and slaughter.

A few U.S. states—California, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia—have taken it upon themselves to outlaw or regulate horse transport and slaughter, though limited enforcement budgets have hampered the effectiveness of most efforts. Meanwhile, animal advocates are hopeful that the U.S. Senate will come to the rescue with an outright ban and that Canada will eventually follow.

CONTACTS: Equine Protection Network; HSUS Equine Protection Program; Interna

tional Fund for Horses; National Horse Protection Coalition.