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Your New Car Is (Partly) Garbage. And That’s A Good Thing
November 1, 2012
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When you look at a brand new car, you probably don't think, "what a pile of trash."

But here's the thing: some newly built cars actually do contain a lot of recycled waste. Car companies use everything from worn-out jeans to old carpet fibres to out-of-circulation money to manufacture parts for their vehicles.

There are a number of benefits for companies that use recycled goods in their vehicles: a better public image, meeting government regulations, and yes, savings.

According to Ford's 2011 Sustainability Report, for example, the company saves about $8 million a year and diverts approximately 50 million pounds of plastics from landfills each year thanks to recycled materials.

So what goes where? Fast Company created this handy illustration to show some of the surprising materials that go into cars. Check out the key to what's what after the image.


A. Volcanic Rock: Not exactly recycling, but still cool. Hyundai uses volcanic rock from Hawaii in the finish on the pillars in Elantras.

B. Carpet Fibres: Old carpets don't die, they get melted down into plastic.

C. Scrap Denim: They may not be in fashion anymore, but your old jeans could help keep a Ford Escape together.

D. Cardboard: You don't want a car that looks too boxy, but this is a little different. GM uses cardboard boxes to make cushioning for some vehicles.

E. Soybeans: They're not just for vegan cooking: hydroxylated soybean oil resembles petroleum, which means it can be used as stuffing in car seats.

F. Air Deflectors: Everything old is new again. These parts of old cars get recycled into parts for new ones.

G. Oil-Soaked Containment Booms: Remember the BP oil spill? The booms that were used to contain the oil have been turned into car parts.

H. Shredded Tires: Ground up rubber from test tires goes into air baffles for radiators and water baffles for windshield wipers on some cars.

I. Shipping Materials: Ever wonder what happens to all those packing peanuts that go in the box when something large is shipped? Well, some of them end up in cars.

So those are some of the recycled (and volcanic) goods that go into some vehicles. But what about the leftovers from car manufacturing that can't be put back into the process?

recycled-car-coat.jpgHere's one way a car company is using them. GM is donating some leftover materials from their Malibu and Verano vehicles to make insulated and waterproof coats for the homeless.

The program was developed in partnership with Empowerment Plan, a humanitarian group based in Detroit. A material called Sonozorb, which is used as insulation in door cavities and vehicle compartments, is being repurposed into usable coat material by automotive supplier GDC.

As of September 12, about 2,000 yards of the material had been donated, enough for 400 coats. And they're not just coats: they actually transform into sleeping bags to keep people warm at night.

Eight homeless women are currently employed full-time turning the material into coats.

But although using recycled materials to build cars and using materials from cars to help people is a step in the right direction, the reality of building new cars is that it creates a lot of pollution no matter how efficiently it's done.

In this 2010 article, The Guardian explained the complexity of the car-making process, and its effect on the environment.

Their conclusion is stark: "Making a new car creates as much carbon pollution as driving it, so it's often better to keep your old banger on the road than to upgrade to a greener model."

They recommend taking good care of the car you have so that it doesn't create any more emissions than it needs to, and keeping it on the road as long as it's running safely.

So there you go. Sometimes "reusing a car's materials" just means using your car.


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