Talking Trash: Why Historic Vehicles Are More Earth-Friendly Than You Think



April 26, 2011

When it comes to recycling, which do you think is the greener machine—cars or consumer electronics?  The answer may surprise you.

Aside from the pride, thrill and passion of driving a restored historic vehicle, there’s a surprisingly earth-friendly aspect to preserving these icons of the industrial age—any historic vehicle on the road is one less in the landfill.  Check out these recent landfill statistics that show just how these enduring remnants of the industrial age compare to the throwaway technology of today.

How many tons of electronic consumer waste goes into landfills each year compared to cars?

According to the most recent data from the EPA, in 2009 the annual U.S. output of electronic waste (televisions, computers, cell phones, etc.) ending up in landfills amounted to 3 million tons.  Similar data suggests that electronic waste is growing two- to three-times faster than any other solid waste stream—not surprising when you consider that there are approximately 2.9 billion consumer electronics in use in U.S. households annually.

It’s estimated that 130,000 computers are thrown out each day and annually we throw out more than 1 million cell phones.  By comparison, cars generate slightly less than 4 million tons of solid waste per year and that number could drop as more and more manufacturers adopt “zero landfill” techniques. Since the EPA's 2009 report, the rapid increase in electronic waste pouring into our landfills likely means that electronic waste is now equal to or greater than the amount generated by cars and will likely keep growing for the foreseeable future.

Which item, a car or a consumer electronic device, has a greater percentage of its parts recycled and kept out of landfills?

Surprisingly, 82-percent of the 400,000 million consumer electronics disposed of annually find their way to a landfill and are not recycled.  In the case of computers, only 51-percent of a computer’s component parts are even able to be recycled.  For cars, it is almost the exact opposite—approximately 80-percent of all scrapped cars are recycled or reused. 

Which category of junk accounts for 70-percent of all the toxic heavy metals in landfills—cars or consumer electronics?

According to the EPA, despite making up only 2-percent of the total volume of trash, electronic waste accounts for 70-percent of the toxic heavy metals found in landfills.  The heavy metals left behind by electronic waste are some of the most damaging to the environment and human health—things such as mercury, cadmium, chromium and brominated fire retardants.

Which takes longer to breakdown and decompose in a landfill, a computer or an engine block?

Consider this: If the architect who designed St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the 4th century A.D. had used a computer, toxic residue from that computer would still be in our landfills today, 1,700 years later.   Engine blocks, on the other hand, stick around for less than a third of that time or 500 years when they are not re-used or recycled. 

Which recycling industry is more heavily regulated- cars or electronics?

Automotive recycling is regulated at a federal level through the EPA, in every state and at a local level.  There are so many regulations for dismantling and recycling car parts, the Automotive Recyclers Association was formed to help members understand it all.

Not only is electronic waste recycled at an astonishingly low rate (only about 18-percent), electronic waste recyclers are not regulated at all on a federal level and only half the states have any electronic waste recycling laws on the books.  Even worse, much of the electronic waste that is recycled is exported to Third World countries where the exposure during dismantling to people and the environment from the toxic materials isn’t tracked at all.

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