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How to Make Cars More Eco-Friendly and Sustainable

March 31, 2020

Sustainable Car Ownership: How to Make Your Vehicle Eco-Friendly

Photo credit: Pixabay

Nearly 96 million automobiles were produced worldwide in 2018, and while the global auto industry sales are projected to decrease, the vast amount of production of durable goods begs the question of how to deal with nearly 57.1 million tons of this type of waste per year.

Reducing your own carbon footprint and becoming more eco-friendly in regards to your vehicle consists of a variety of choices that range from economic investments to everyday behaviors. Investment choices such as purchasing a manufactured eco-friendly vehicle, performing routine maintenance and emissions testing, or purchasing recycled auto parts or motor oil all play a role in making your vehicle and transportation more green. Learning behaviors such as properly filling your gas tank and tire air, or perhaps reducing the use of your AC, can all make a difference in making your vehicle more eco-friendly.

What Is an Eco-Friendly Vehicle?

An eco-friendly vehicle is one that is designed or enhanced with an emphasis on reducing pollution and waste. This may include changing the energy source of the vehicle or utilizing recycled materials to manufacture the vehicle. The benefits of eco-friendly cars may include:

  • A reduction of gas and fossil fuel usage that reduces carbon dioxide production and dependence on foreign oil.
  • A tax break for driving a green car.
  • Saving money from reduced fuel needs, tax breaks, and oftentimes, less need for maintenance and repair.
  • Leading by example and using your purchasing power to show manufacturers the wants and needs of consumers.

Importance of Eco-Friendly Vehicles

The United States is the second greatest contributor to CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, with 29% of the U.S. sources of greenhouse gas emissions generated from transportation — primarily from burning fossil fuels for cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes. U.S. net emissions are declining due to a variety of factors that include shifting from coal and natural gas to renewable energy sources, and a leveling of the electric demand.

Improved vehicle efficiency has helped to reduce transportation-related emissions by nearly 6%, though transportation emissions in total have been increasing in total since 2012. Carbon dioxide is the largest percentage of greenhouse gas emitted by the United States, with transportation as the largest contributor. The U.S. has a large percentage of car ownership in households, with nearly 88% of households owning at least one operational vehicle. Finding solutions for everyday American families, such as utilizing eco-friendly cars or eco-friendly vehicle practices, can provide a solution for Americans to participate in the reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Features of Eco-Friendly Cars

There is an assortment of features that improve the eco-friendliness of cars which include:

  • Hybrid cars that can transition to an electric vehicle (EV) mode when proper.
  • LED lighting that reduces battery and energy consumption.
  • Eco-mode air conditioning and heating to improve efficiency.
  • Lightweight design to improve fuel efficiency.
  • Emission sensors that are designed to regulate and release as few emissions as possible.
  • Radar and proximity alert that help prevent major and minor accidents and may extend the life of the vehicle and/or its parts.

Other designs that are becoming more common in eco-friendly manufactured cars include: better air filtration systems, automatic “shift by wire” technology that enhances gear changing or automatic park mode, and inflatable rear seat safety belts that are also compatible with children’s car seats.

Types of Eco-Friendly Cars

There are a variety of cars that are manufactured to be eco-friendly at purchase. These cars are designed to emit low carbon compounds as they run and use less toxic fuels. The diversity of green cars on the market offer a variation that suits the needs of the consumer by expanding the market with eco-conscious choices.

Biodiesel Cars

Biodiesel cars operate from fuels made from natural vegetable oils such as canola, sunflower, soy, and hemp. Waste oils that have been used to fry foods may also be used after they have been processed and cleaned. There are a variety of benefits and considerations of biodiesel in operating vehicles. Benefits may include:

  • Reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 74% compared with petroleum diesel.
  • Offset in biodiesel carbon dioxide emissions through an equitable absorption of carbon dioxide in plant growth needed to create biodiesel.
  • Cost efficiency. Biodiesel fuels are typically less expensive and may sometimes be received for free from participating restaurants in the food industry.
  • Support for farming. The use of biodiesel will support farms to produce the necessary products.
  • Biodiesel is easily produced in the United States.
  • Reduced reliance on fossil fuels.
  • Many diesel vehicles are capable of operating on biodiesel.
  • Biodiesel improves fuel lubricity necessary to keep engine parts moving, and can reduce premature wear.
  • Biodiesels has a reduced impact from accidents and spills than petroleum and is safer as it is less combustible.
  • Biodiesel is safe to handle, store, and transport.

Electric Cars

Fully electric cars offer a no tailpipe pollution solution, though there may be pollution from power plants generating electricity. Utilizing electric cars in tandem with renewable energy sources eliminates nearly all pollutants. There are a variety of benefits of all-electric vehicles, including:

  • Electric vehicles convert over 77% of electrical energy to power the wheels, as opposed to conventional gasoline which only converts 12%-30% of stored energy to power the wheels.
  • Electric motors are quiet and smooth. Electric motors also offer stronger acceleration and require less maintenance than internal combustion engines.
  • There are fewer moving parts relative to conventional internal combustion engines.
  • Electricity can be produced domestically, reducing the reliance on foreign resources.
  • There are fewer fluids to change than cars that operate from internal combustion.
  • Regenerative braking significantly reduces brake wear.
  • Electric vehicles tend to have a lower center of gravity, making them more stable and less likely to roll over in the case of an accident.
  • Fuel costs are reduced as e-gallons are typically sold at a lower cost and are more stable than regular gasoline.
  • Electric vehicle batteries are designed to last the typical life of the vehicle, ranging from 12-15 years in moderate climates, and 8-12 in more severe climates.

There are some drawbacks that are associated with all-electric vehicles that are still under improvement. This may include a shorter driving range, a lengthy recharge time, and the high cost of replacing a battery should it fail.

Ethanol Cars

Ethanol fuel is made from ethyl alcohol and is distilled from high-starch crops such as corn, grains, grass, or sugar, though it can also be made from other organic substances. Ethanol fuel is mixed with unleaded gasoline in varying amounts, ranging all the way to 15% gas and 85% ethanol, which is typically used in hybrid cars. There are a variety of benefits and considerations for using ethanol gas, including:

  • The lower percentage of gasoline in the blend reduces emissions.
  • Using ethanol supports the U.S. economy, as it can be produced domestically.
  • The increased use of ethanol could increase domestic jobs in rural areas to support the needs of ethanol production.
  • Ethanol has a higher octane number than gas which may result in increased power and performance of an ethanol capable vehicle.
  • Ethanol burns cleaner and cooler, which may help engines run more efficiently.
  • The carbon dioxide released from a high ethanol blend can be offset by the carbon dioxide captured from crop growth to produce ethanol.

The drawbacks associated with ethanol blends are that while the ethanol may increase efficiency in the overall performance of an engine, it may also reduce the distance per gallon. Older vehicles — vehicles made before 2003 — may also be susceptible to damage caused by ethanol. It is important to ensure that your vehicle is ethanol-approved before using fuel blends with ethanol.

Hybrid Cars

A hybrid car is designed to run from two different sources of power, they often include both an internal combustion engine and an electrical motor. Hybrids can use radio waves, electromagnetic fields, electricity, hydrogen, liquid nitrogen, and petrol as possible energy sources. There are are a variety of electric vehicle benefits and considerations:

  • Hybrid vehicles typically use less fuel than conventional vehicles, reducing emissions.
  • Because of reduced fuel use, hybrid vehicles have lower fuel costs than conventional vehicles.
  • Many hybrids use advanced technology such as regenerative braking, the electric motor drive assist, and automatic start and stop, which all reduce energy waste.
  • Electric hybrids have access to flexible fueling, as they can be charged in a public or private charging station, and also use gasoline and sometimes diesel.
  • There are often federal tax credits and state incentives for purchasing a hybrid vehicle.

Hybrids offer many of the benefits of electric cars but are also subject to the same high costs associated with purchasing and maintaining them. The advanced batteries of plug-in operated vehicles are built to last the life of the vehicle but are also expensive if they need to be replaced. However, battery costs are expected to decline as production, popularity, and technologies improve and increase.

Hydrogen-Powered Cars

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles utilize an electric motor that operates by combining the hydrogen gas from a fuel tank with oxygen. The combination generates electricity with only heat and water as byproducts of the process. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles offer a range of environmental benefits such as:

  • Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are zero-emission vehicles that do not release greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions.
  • Fueling and driving ranges for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is similar to that of traditional vehicles that operate from gas. Some may even get over 300 miles on one tank.
  • Hydrogen infrastructure is becoming more available to consumers, and there are plans to increase fuel cell vehicle offerings as technology and infrastructure continue to grow and mature.

While hydrogen fuel cell vehicles do not release tailpipe emissions, the process of harvesting abundant hydrogen into a usable form for fuel is energy-intensive and may commonly come from natural gas sources. However, there are a variety of sources that hydrogen may be harvested from including water, oil, coal, plant material, or from harvesting landfill gas and wastewater.

How to Make Cars More Eco-Friendly

Purchasing a manufactured green car is not the only way to make an investment in more eco-friendly personal transportation. You can also make specific upgrades and perform best practices to make your current car more eco-friendly regardless of make, model, or year.


There are fuel options, combinations, and fueling behaviors that can influence how environmentally friendly your vehicle is. Fuel options for your current vehicle may include bioethanol and biodiesel. Topping off or overfilling your tank can also increase the chance that harmful vapor may escape and evaporate into the atmosphere. Changing behaviors so that you do not top off after the auto shut off, or that you ensure your fuel cap is screwed on tightly, can help reduce vapor emissions.


Tires play an integral role in the efficiency of your vehicle, and yet tire waste is a problem that is getting worse. In the United States alone, automobiles produce 246 million waste tires per year. Fortunately, tires are recyclable, and research is being performed on how to make tires more sustainable. There are a few options to consider when planning to invest in new tires; try looking for low-rolling tires — tires that reduce resistance and decrease energy loss — or tires that have been made from sustainable processes or leave low environmental impact residue.

Underinflated tires typically do not roll as efficiently, making your engine work harder, and increasing gas usage. Ensuring that you maintain the proper tire pressure can increase your fuel economy. Every vehicle and type of tire requires a different air pressure. You can check for the appropriate air pressure on a sticker that is usually located inside the driver’s door, you may also check in the owner’s manual. Use an air pressure gage — gas station air compressors are usually equipped with them — to check your air pressure, and then fill to the appropriate measure.

Keeping your tires at the appropriate pressure may also extend the length of time they are usable. Regularly checking your air pressure is an investment not only in your fuel economy but in reducing the number of times you may have to purchase new tires.


Motor oil and used motor oil is a pollutant that often makes its way into soil and water from engine leaks or improper disposal. It is toxic to plants, wildlife, and humans. Managing, reusing, and recycling used oil in the proper ways is vitally important, as the used oil from one oil change is enough to contaminate one million gallons of fresh water.

Utilizing synthetic oils, natural alternatives, or recycled and refined oil can help to reduce motor oil contamination. Motor oil does not wear out — it simply becomes too dirty to be functional — so recycling helps to utilize a valuable resource. It also takes less energy to produce refined oil than to create motor oil from crude oil. Reuse also helps to keep dirty motor oil from being thrown away, and the opportunity for it to contaminate water and soil. Many recycling facilities, automobile maintenance facilities, and waste collection facilities accept used oil and the used filters that go with it.


The emission system on a car cleans and minimizes the exhaust fumes that exit the tailpipes. It is the responsibility of a car owner to ensure that it meets the environmental impact standards required by law. Oftentimes, a check engine light will illuminate if there is a problem with an emissions system and it is important to get it checked right away.

Dysfunctional emission systems can multiply the greenhouse gasses your car produces and releases into the atmosphere. If you fail an emissions test you are oftentimes given a replacement period in which you will need to perform any necessary work to meet the legal requirements.

Air Conditioning

There are few ways you can cool your car while still being considerate of fuel economy in hot weather. Air condition increases the strain on a car’s electrical system which causes the engine to work harder to compensate, leading to an increase in fuel consumption.

Minimizing the use of air conditioning in a vehicle can help reduce fuel usage. Rolling down windows at lower speeds should not produce enough drag to affect gas mileage, while freeway speeds may increase drag. If you do use air conditioning, make sure that you are maintaining and monitoring the system pressure, and that refrigerants are at the correct levels. Parking in shade or with the windows ½ an inch down and utilizing tinted windows can help keep your car cool. You can also place a clean wet or frozen cloth over the car vent to cool air as it circulates in the vehicle.


The radiator and cooling system utilizes a thermostat to maintain the necessary working temperature of an engine. If the thermostat is too cold, the engine must work harder and utilize more fuel. If the engine runs hot it can overheat and blow the radiator or head gasket. Monitoring the temperature gauge on your dashboard regularly can help improve your fuel economy and help you to avoid a costly repair.


General maintenance and care of your vehicle can improve its longevity, reliability, fuel consumption, emissions, and reduce chances of leaks, making your care more efficient and environmentally friendly. There are a few checklist items that should be considered for general maintenance including, but not limited to:

  • Regular oil changes.
  • Regular spark plug checks and replacements.
  • Oxygen sensor checks.
  • Emission tests.
  • Tire rotation and pressure checks.
  • Regularly checking fluids such as coolant and transmission fluid.
  • Changing your filters.
  • Battery performance checks
  • General tune-ups.

Recycled Automotive Parts

Buying and utilizing recycled vehicle products and recovered materials can:

  • Conserve natural resources;
  • Save energy;
  • Reduce solid waste;
  • Reduce air and water pollutants;
  • Reduce greenhouse gases;
  • And create new jobs in the automotive recycling industry.

Refurbished and recycled items may include:

  • Re-refined oil;
  • Recycled oil filters;
  • Retreaded tires;
  • Reclaimed engine coolants;
  • Rebuilt vehicular parts such as engines, transmissions, water pumps, starters, and alternators;
  • Recycled vehicular parts such as auto glass and other auto body parts or functional accessories.

You can find a variety of recycled car accessories and parts at auto parts stores, used auto parts stores, salvage yards, and recycling centers. Conversely, you can also sell your used car to be recycled.

How to Drive Smarter

Being aware of your driving tendencies and utilizing environmentally conscious tactics about your transportation can help reduce your carbon footprint Consider the following tips.

Reduce the amount that you drive:

  • Walk, bike, or carpool when possible;
  • Take advantage of ride-share or bike-share programs;
  • Utilize public transportation;
  • Trip-chain — plan ahead and visit multiple locations on one route;
  • Work from home periodically, if possible.

Drive more efficiently:

  • Drive sensibly using your gas and brake pedals;
  • Observe the speed limit;
  • Avoid hauling cargo on your roof;
  • Remove excess weight;
  • Avoid excess idling;
  • Use cruise control;
  • Provide regular tune-ups and maintenance to your vehicle.

What is Vehicle Recycling?

Globally, more than 25 million cars reach the end of their service life, making end-of-life vehicle recycling and resource recovery not only an important sustainability effort, but also a valuable industry in conservation, scrap processing, and reclamation. At the end of their life cycle, some cars may even be more valuable as recycled material for the owner. The average amount someone may receive for scrapping their car can range between $150-$500. Consider these car recycling facts and information:

  • 98% of a car can be recycled.
  • Metals can be smelted, purified, and reused.
  • Glass and plastics can be melted down and reused.
  • Rubber can be recycled and/or repurposed.
  • Liquids can be neutralized or reused.

Recycling one car can save:

  • 2,500 lbs of iron ore;
  • 1,400 lbs of coal;
  • 120 lbs of limestone.

Importance of Vehicle Recycling

Further car recycling facts and information include:

  • The scrap industry processes nearly 145 million tons of recyclable material each year, which is used as raw material for stock or industrial manufacturing.
  • The benefits of recycling scrap vs. extracting virgin iron ore include:
    • 90% savings in raw material.
    • 75% savings in energy use.
    • 86% reduction in air pollution.
    • 76% reduction in water pollution.
    • 40% reduction in water use.
    • 97% reduction in mining wastes.
  • Scrapping produces nearly one ton of recycled steel, which staves the energy equivalent of 36 barrels of oil.
  • The scrapping industry also contributes over $65 billion to the U.S. economy.
  • Nearly 10 million cars are scrapped each year in the U.S.

How Much of a Car Is Recyclable?

A car at the end of its life cycle still holds worth, as nearly 98% of a car can be used for parts or recycled. It is valuable to utilize a trusted mechanic who will perform a used car inspection which typically costs around $100. The inspection will help you understand the state of the parts and what is and is not recyclable.

Where to Recycle Old Car Parts

Old car parts may be taken to recycling centers, a junk car buyer, or a parts dealer. Many, but not all organizations may offer payment for recyclable materials, while some may accept car parts as donations. Some cities and towns also have special trash collection days that the municipality organizes. Batteries, in particular, should be cautiously recycled, and many manufacturers often abide by the state “take back” laws that offer cash incentives to exchange an old battery for a new one.