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Eco Etiquette: Is a New Prius Worse for the Environment Than an Old SUV?

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I heard that by buying a new Prius, you are doing more damage eco-wise than continuing to use your worn, but not-worn-out, SUV. It has something to do with the energy used to produce a Prius -- supposedly it will take you seven years to break even. Is this true?

-Conley

Well, yes and no. There are a few different issues at play here that I need to address in order to accurately answer your question.

The first is the oft-repeated myth that a Hummer is actually greener than a Prius, once you factor in the energy expended over the car's total life cycle, including manufacturing and disposal. This stemmed from a 2006 report entitled "Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles from Concept to Disposal," by Oregon-based CNW Marketing Research, an outfit of suspect funding and origins (the website lists a P.O. box as the company's address, and states that its "various operations -- call centers, data center, field offices -- are off limits"). The report claimed that the Hummer came out ahead, but real scientists -- including those at the nonpartisan Pacific Institute and the Rocky Mountain Institute, which used the GREET life cycle model developed by the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory for its analysis -- were quick to debunk CNW's conjecture and flawed science (the Hummer was assumed to last 35 years in the CNW study). Nevertheless, the rumor has stuck - probably because it is so counter to all the science out there that the media and well-intentioned chain mail circulators have glommed onto it.

There is some truth, however, to the idea that you have to account for the carbon cost of manufacturing a car before you can assess its true environmental benefits. For the Prius, according to Wired magazine, you'd have to drive 46,000 miles (likely achieved far sooner than the seven years you cite) before you'd "pay off" its initial 113 million BTU energy cost.

If you have the funds, then by all means, trade in your SUV for a Prius -- you'll be helping the environment by eventually reducing your carbon footprint and by increasing market demand for innovative, fuel-efficient cars. But interestingly, according to that same Wired article, the best choice of all (both financially and eco-wise) may be to trade in your inefficient SUV for a used car that gets great mileage. And while you certainly won't get as many nods driving a 1994 Geo Metro XFi as you would with a new loaded solar-roof Prius (though you may get as many looks), I will grant you more green bragging rights.

My daughter keeps bugging me to use a filtered pitcher for water at home instead of buying bottled water (and I'd like to oblige), but what about all of those plastic filters? I can recycle plastic bottles, but don't those filters just wind up in the landfill?

-Dan

Cheers to you for listening to your daughter: The Container Recycling Institute estimates that so far this year, over 136 billion beverage cans and bottles have been landfilled, littered, and incinerated in the US alone; according to Earth911.com, only 24 percent of plastic bottles are actually recycled. So switching to a reusable pitcher will go a long way toward reducing waste, not to mention the millions of barrels of oil that are required to manufacture all that plastic to begin with.

But I digress; what about those filters? Thanks largely to the Take Back the Filter campaign, which petitioned Clorox, the maker of Brita, to find a recycling solution for its filters, the water filtration behemoth teamed up with eco-friendly household product maker Preserve (a neat company, I might add; I'm a big fan of its toothbrushes manufactured from recycled yogurt cups) to collect and recycle its pitcher filters. The resulting Preserve Gimme 5 recycling program ("5" refers to the No. 5 plastic, polypropylene, used to make the filters), which began in January, allows customers to drop off their used filters at participating Whole Foods locations or mail them back to Preserve. Click here to learn more about the program and to find a drop-off bin near you.

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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