In search of the greenest car

Automobility and sustainability

Authored by: Barry L. Stiefel , Amalia Leifeste

The Routledge Companion to Automobile Heritage, Culture, and Preservation

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  December  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138389434
eBook ISBN: 9780429423918
Adobe ISBN:


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Architect Carl Elefante claimed that “the greenest building is […] one that is already built,” spurring the green building industry to consider the inherent environmental value of buildings in respect to their embodied energy and materials, as well as the effects associated with demolition followed by new construction. 1 This concept of “upcycling” can be applied to other large material objects, such as automobiles and other motor vehicles (trucks, motorcycles, etc.). Upcycling is a term McDonough and Braungart coined in their influential work in the literature of sustainability called Cradle to Cradle. 2 The idea of upcycling is that products (including buildings and automobiles) can be recycled (or, in McDonough and Braungart’s terminology, downcycled) when their material components are reclaimed and used to produce another product down the metaphorical industrial food chain, meaning an aluminum frame for a storefront window system becomes a beverage can, or a concrete retaining wall gets crushed up to be fill under a parking lot. While recycling or downcycling is better than simply having the materials enter the waste stream and take up space in a landfill or be burnt, releasing negative pollutants into the atmosphere and taking high-quality or high-performance materials and downgrading them to lower-performance uses is not a sustainable strategy in the long run, because societies still need to harvest virgin raw materials to feed the top of the food chain. Upcycling, by contrast, reuses materials for their same or a higher purpose when imaging an industrial ecosystem. Here products would be designed so that they can be reused, in whole or in part, to serve society similarly, such as a broken-down car’s steel chassis recast into a new shape for use in a future automobile. With a pure upcycling system, raw virgin materials only need to be harvested once, to start the cycle, and then the system would be a closed loop, where the waste from one product would be the input for the next product. Upcycling relates to reuse when talking about large-scale products, such as buildings and automobiles, because finding continued use for these products (or assemblies of materials) means that the materials that go into the product are being upcycled when they have passed their first, initial phase of usefulness. Elefante is drawing on a well-developed understanding of waste management and environmental engineering – and objectives shared by those interested in sustainable design as well as historic preservation – when he points out that extending the life cycle of a product is one of the greenest things that we can do. Renovating a house, or rehabilitating a building (in preservation terminology), or refurbishing a car or other type of complex machine has much more benefit to the consumptive footprint of an individual or a society than producing a new product with incremental efficiency improvements. The value of vintage includes its sustainable aspect (waste diversion, reducing demand for new products) as well as the many other appeals of vintage products in certain segments of society. One potential segment where the environmental value of vintage can be better realized is with heritage automobiles.

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