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impact of cars on environment

Automotive Environmental Issues

by Larry Carley copyright

Cars are a great means of personal transportation, but they have created a variety of environmental concerns. The global car population is now 1.5 BILLION vehicles! In the U.S., there is nearly one vehicle for every man, woman and child. China has experienced explosive growth of its vehicle population in recent years. With so many vehicles no in use, here is a list of some of the environmental impacts automobiles are having on our planet today:

Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

The biggest environmental issue today with respect to cars is their impact on Global Warming and Climate Change from carbon dioxide emissions in the exhaust. Catalytic converters have greatly reduced most of the other major pollutants in automotive exhaust (unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen), but converters don't reduce the amount of CO2 because CO2 is a natural byproduct of combustion. In fact, you produce CO2 anytime a fossil fuel that contains carbon is burned. An electric vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell won't produce any CO2, but that technology is a long ways off from mass production. Plug-in electric vehicles look like the better solution, provided the electricity is produced by a green source such as wind, geothermal, hydroelectric or solar cells. Electricity from a nuclear power plant is also green as far as CO2 emissions are concerned (there are none), but the issue with nukes is radioactive waste disposal and the risk of dangerous radiation leaks.

A/C Refrigerants

Back in the mid-1990s, R-134a refrigerant replaced R-12 to address the ozone depletion issue caused by manmade CFC refrigerants. R-134a contains on chlorine, so that apparently solves that issue. But R-134a is a greenhouse gas that can contribute to global warming. The refrigerant causes no problems as long as it remains sealed inside the A/C system. But if it escapes into the atmosphere either as a result of leaks, an accident or intentional venting, it does contribute to the global warming problem. It's not much, but every little bit adds up over time. So to address this issue, automakers are replacing R-134a with R-1234yf. R-134a has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 1400 versus 4 for R-1234yf and only 1 for CO2.

Read the following articles for more information:

Alternative Refrigerants

The Unforeseen Environmental Impact of Air Conditioning


Lead is a toxic heavy metal that can cause a variety of environmental ills. Tetraethyl lead was once used as an octane-boosting additive in gasoline to improve performance and fuel economy. But studies found that lead from automotive exhaust fumes was causing lead poisoning in many urban areas, so a phase out of leaded fuels began in 1973. However, production of leaded gasoline did not end until 1985 in the U.S.

Another reason why lead had to be removed from gasoline was because it fouled catalytic converters (introduced in 1975) and oxygen sensors on computer engine control systems (mid-1980s & later).

Lead still remains in car batteries, but is not an environmental concern because 98% of car batteries are recycled. The latest lead issue is with wheel balance weights. California and a growing number of other states are banning lead tire weights because the weights sometimes fall off, decompose and allow lead dust to find its way into lakes and streams . The tire service industry is starting to move away from lead weights to more benign materials such as steel and zinc.

Read the following article for more information about wheel balance weights: Wheel Balancing

Copper in brake linings

Small amounts of copper (less than 10 percent) are used in many brake linings to help dissipate heat. But as the brake pads wear, it creates dust that contains particles of copper. Scientists say copper in brake dust is an environmental contaminant that is harmful to aquatic organisms so efforts are being made to require friction manufacturers to reduce or eliminate the amount of copper in brake pads. California and Washington have already passed laws that will phase out most of the copper in brake linings by 2021. Other states are considering similar legislation.


This was once considered to be a great friction material for brakes, clutch linings and gaskets. But because of the health risks associated with exposure to asbestos dust (mesothelioma lung disease), asbestos was mostly phased out of brakes back in the 1980s. Asbestos did not present any serious health risk to motorists, but it did to people involved in asbestos-related manufacturing and mining, and also to automotive service technicians who worked on brakes.

Today, asbestos is mostly history but it can still be found in some aftermarket replacement brake linings that are made outside the US but imported into the US market. Because of this, brake dust can still be a potential health hazard.

Read the following articles for more information about Asbestos and Brake Dust

Toxic chemicals in interior plastics and fabrics

Car makers use a wide variety of plastics and upholstery materials in vehicles. Many people like that "new car smell," but the fumes that create the odor often contains volatile organic compounds and other chemicals that outgas from the plastics. Many of these fumes are toxic or carcinogenic and may increase a motorist's health risk over time. Scientists disagree on what level of exposure is too high, but many say it's not a good idea to breathe these fumes if they can be avoided. Some advise rolling down the windows and allowing the fumes to vent out before driving a car has been parked in the hot sun all day. Auto makers are making more effort to reduce the use of plastics and materials that give off potentially toxic fumes. But many vehicles still generate levels of toxic fumes that some say are too high.

Read the following article for more information on Toxic Chemicals In Your Car's Interior

Used Motor Oil

Used motor oil can contaminate ground water if it is disposed of improperly by someone who changes their own oil. Fortunately, most of the motor oil that's changed annually is recycled properly either by service outlets or by DIYers who bring their used motor oil to an auto parts store or other facility that accepts used motor oil for recycling. Several oil companies are now marketing recycled oil as a green alternative to conventional motor oil.

Used Antifreeze

Like motor oil disposal is the main issue here. Ethylene glycol can be toxic to plants and animals, but it does gradually break down over time if it finds its way into a river or lake. It can be disposed of by pouring it into a toilet, but should never be disposed of by dumping it on the ground or down a storm sewer. Coolant can be recycled, and many auto service facilities now use coolant recycling machines that clean and rejuvenate the coolant in a vehicle's cooling system.

Read the following article for more information about Coolant Recycling

used tires
Millions of scrap tires are generated every year.
But they cannot be buried in landfills, and they are toxic to burn.

Used Tires

The issue here is tire disposal. A set of tires will typically last 50,000 to 80,000 miles or more. But eventually, the tread wears out and the tires have to be replaced. Most tire stores charge a tire disposal fee that covers their cost of sending the tires to an approved tire disposal site or facility. Old tires can be shredded and recycled into paving asphalt, or they can be burned (under controlled conditions only to minimize pollution), or cooked down to recover their valuable hydrocarbons and other ingredients (but the process is expensive). But mostly, discarded tires are simply stockpiled in huge piles that create breeding grounds for mosquitoes. If a pile of old tires catches fire, it can burn for days, weeks or even months creating thick black clouds of acrid smoke.

Junk Cars

Most of the metal in a vehicle (steel, aluminum & copper) is usually recovered for recycling after a vehicle has been scrapped. Many good usable parts such as fenders, hoods, doors, windshields, etc. are removed from junk cars to find a second life as a replacement part to fix another vehicle. Other parts such as engines, transmissions, alternators and starters are recovered and rebuilt to be sold in auto parts stores. This saves considerable energy and environmental impact compared to mining and processing virgin iron and aluminum and making new parts from scratch.


Though many plastics are recyclable, most of plastics in scrapped automobiles ends up as ground up fluff that goes into a landfill. More work is being done to identify and recycle plastics at a vehicle's end of life, and auto makers are using more recycled plastics in new parts as well. But we still have a long ways to go to to reduce the environmental impact of plastics in junked vehicles.

Noise Pollution

Urban environments are noisy because of the population density, and traffic certainly does not help matters any. Car, trucks, buses and motorcycles all emit sound, some much more than others. Studies have shown that people who live near high traffic roads experience greater levels of stress than those who live in quieter areas. Most urban areas have noise rules, but the rules are seldom enforced.

Urban Gridlock and Road Rage

The total number of vehicles registered in the U.S. in 2021 is in excess of 280 million. Back in 1970, there were about 200 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads. So although the vehicle popular has expanded by almost a third, we still have roughly the same number of miles of roads. The traffic in many large cities has reached the saturation point, creating urban gridlock that snarls traffic, delays travel times and increases the risk of road rage. What used to be "Rush Hour" traffic congestion during morning and evening commutes has now become all-day congestion. The problem is the result of urban sprawl, poor urban planning, lack of reliable and accessible public transportation in many cities and suburbs, and the fact that everybody wants to drive their own vehicle and not have to share their personal space with other people on public transportation or in a car pool.

Drilling, Refining & Pipelines

A growing demand for oil from which gasoline is made is fueling a demand for more offshore drilling, more fracking, more extraction of oil from oil shale and sand, and more pipelines to carry crude oil to refineries. All of these have their own associated environmental impacts and risks. As the world's car population grows, especially in China where they are selling 25 million cars a year (more than the U.S., Japan and Germany combined!), the world's oil supply may not be able to keep up, increasing the potential for future military conflicts.

automotive environmental issues More Environmental Articles:

Global Warming and Climate Change: What Do We Know Now?

Global Warming from CO2 Latest Environmental Challenge

SUVs vs Trees

The Unforeseen Environmental Impact of Air Conditioning

About Alternative Fuels

Diesel or Hybrid-Electric, Which Is Best?

E85 Ethanol Alcohol Fuel

Who Killed The Electric Car?

To More Technical Info Click Here to See More Carley Automotive Technical Articles

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