Week of 2/1/2004


From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Why is gasoline so much more expensive in Europe than in the U.S.?
—Bo White, Chicago, IL

There are multiple components to gasoline prices, according to the Energy Information Administration, an independent statistical agency within the U.S. Department of Energy: the cost of production and delivery, including the cost of crude oil to refiners and refinery processing costs; marketing and distribution costs; retail station costs; and taxes.

In 2002, crude oil accounted for about 43 percent of the cost of a gallon of regular grade gasoline; refining costs and profits comprised about 13 percent; distribution, marketing and retail dealer costs and profits made up 13 percent; and federal, state, and local taxes accounted for approximately 31 percent of the cost.

Gasoline prices in countries such as the United Kingdom and Norway can sometimes reach $5 per gallon—because of high taxes. According to the Wall Street Journal, taxes in the United Kingdom account for 80 percent of the pump price, while the Europe-wide average is between 60 and 70 percent.

In Germany, gasoline taxes account for a whopping 20 percent of all government revenues. Across Europe, such taxes have resulted in more fuel-efficient vehicles. According to John DeCicco, a policy analyst at Environmental Defense and author of Automakers' Corporate Carbon Burdens: Reframing Public Policy on Automobiles, Oil and Climate, "The higher taxes have contributed to fuel efficiency that averages 30 percent higher [than U.S. levels]. However, they have not motivated ongoing conservation."

If gasoline taxes in the U.S. had the same effect on driving that cigarette taxes have had on some smokers, higher gas prices could provide the motivation for some consumers to switch from, say, large SUVs to smaller more fuel-efficient cars. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, every 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes reduces smoking among pregnant women by seven percent. The average American driver is certainly not as motivated to "do the right thing" as a mother-to-be, but it stands to reason that, like the effect of cigarette taxes, increased gas taxes might drive motorists to drive more fuel-efficient cars—and those tax revenues could be used to further promote fuel-efficiency and develop alterative fuels.

CONTACT: Energy Information Administration, 1000 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20585, (202) 586.8800, www.eia.doe.gov/pub/oil_gas/petroleum/analysis_publications/primer_on_gasoline_prices/html/petbro.html; Environmental Defense, 257 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010, (212) 505-2100, www.edf.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I have been looking for an electric can crusher so that I can crush my aluminum cans and store them for recycling. Do you have any idea who makes one?
—Jon Marshall, via email

As far as we can tell, there are no consumer-marketed electric can crushers. But that’s no tragedy. Why waste fossil fuel-generated electricity when human power will do the job just fine? One of the most practical models we’ve seen is the MultiCrush Can Compactor available for $23 from Planet Natural. The all-steel unit stacks up to six cans, and then feeds them automatically into the much-feared (if you’re a can) crushing chamber. Put your recycling bin underneath, and the flattened cans fall right in.

If you’re planning on a lot of crushing, consider the Barco Aluminum Can Crusher, available from Berlyn Enterprises for $60. The crushing device on this model, which is made of high-density polyethylene, is attached to a trash bin that holds up to 400 crushed cans.

Still not satisfied with these low-tech solutions? You can always contact the Plasma Dynamics Laboratory at New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), which has, for its own whimsical purposes, invented an industrial-size can crusher that uses electricity to create a powerful magnetic field capable of reducing aluminum cans to a heap of compacted metal. You can visit RPI’s Can Crusher home page (http://hibp.ecse.rpi.edu/Can_Crusher/home.html) for a demonstration.

Whichever method you choose, recycling your empty cans makes good environmental sense. "The aluminum can is the most valuable and most recycled beverage container," says Jenny Day, director of recycling at the Can Manufacturers Institute. Day says that the aluminum industry paid $800 million last year to reclaim cans. Recycling eight six packs saves the energy equivalent of one gallon of gas, and the energy saved by recycling just one empty can is enough to power a television for three hours.

CONTACTS: Planet Natural, 1612 Gold Avenue, Bozeman, MT 59715, (800) 289-6656, www.planetnatural.com, info@planetnatural.com; Berlyn Enterprises, LLC7333, 2060-D Ave de Los Arboles #220, Thousand Oaks, CA 91362-1361, (888) 404-7750, www.berlynenterprises.com, info@berlynenterprises.com; Can Manufacturers Institute, 1730 Rhode Island Avenue NW, Suite 1000, Washington DC 20036, (202) 232-4677, www.cancentral.com.