Motor oil dripping from cars can add up and end up contaminating waterways and sediments. (Photo by Brandon Blinkenberg)
Industries and companies get labeled as
“polluters.” But what do you do when you find out you’re a pretty big polluter yourself… and you find out it’s going to cost you a lot of money to fix the
problem? As part of the series, “Your Choice; Your
Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca
Williams finds herself in that dilemma:
Industries and companies get labeled as “polluters.” But what do you do when you find out you’re a pretty big polluter yourself… and you find out it’s going to cost you a lot of money to fix the problem? As part of the series, “Your Choice; Your Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams finds herself in that dilemma:
(sound of car starting)
This is my ‘89 Toyota Camry. It has 188,000 miles on it. Pieces of
plastic trim fly off on the highway, and I have to climb in from the
backseat when my door gets frozen in the winter. But I got it for free, I get good gas mileage, and my insurance is cheap. But now, it’s leaking oil – lots of oil. I knew it was bad when I started
pouring in a quart of oil every other week.
I thought I’d better take it in to the shop.
(sound of car shop)
My mechanic, Walt Hayes, didn’t exactly have good news for me.
“You know, you’re probably leaking about 80% of that, just from experience, I’d say
you’re burning 20% and leaking 80%.”
Walt says the rear main seal is leaking, and the oil’s just dripping
straight to the ground. Walt tells me the seal costs 25 dollars, but he’d
have to take the transmission out to get to the seal. That means I’d be
paying him 650 dollars.
650 bucks to fix an oil leak, when no one would steal my car’s radio. There’s no way. Obviously, it’s cheaper to spend two dollars on each quart of oil, than to fix the seal.
“Right – what else is going to break, you know? You might fix the rear main
seal, and your transmission might go out next week or something. Your car,
because of its age, is on the edge all the time. So to invest in a 25 dollar seal, spending a lot of money for labor, almost doesn’t make sense on an
That’s my mechanic telling me not to fix my car. In fact, he says he’s seen
plenty of people driving even older Toyotas, and he says my engine will
probably hold out a while longer. But now I can’t stop thinking about the
quarts of oil I’m slowly dripping all over town.
I need someone to tell me: is my one leaky car really all that bad? Ralph
Reznick works with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He
spends his time trying to get polluters to change their behavior.
“That’s a lot for an old car. If you were the only car in the parking lot,
that wouldn’t be very much. But the fact is, there’s a lot of cars just
like yours that are doing the same thing.”
Reznick says the oil and antifreeze and other things that leak from and fall
off cars like mine add up.
“The accumulative impact of your car and other cars, by hitting the
pavement, and washing off the pavement into the waterways, is a very large
impact. It’s one of the largest sources of pollution we’re dealing with
Reznick says even just a quart of oil can pollute thousands of gallons of
water. And he says toxins in oil can build up in sediment at the bottom of
rivers and lakes. That can be bad news for aquatic animals and plants.
There’s no question – he wants me to fix the leak.
But I am NOT pouring 650 bucks into this car when the only thing it has going
for it is that it’s saving me money. So I can either keep driving it, and
feel pretty guilty, or I can scrap it and get a new car.
But it does take a lot of steel and plastic and aluminum to make a new car.
Maybe I’m doing something right for the environment by driving a car that’s
already got that stuff invested in it.
I went to the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan
and talked to Greg Keoleian. He’s done studies on how many years it makes
sense to keep a car. He says if you look at personal costs, and the energy
that goes into a making a midsize car, it makes sense to hang onto it for a
long time… like 16 years.
No problem there – I finally did something right!
Well, sort of.
“In your case, from an emissions point of view, you should definitely
replace your vehicle. It turns out that a small fraction of vehicles are
really contributing to a lot of the local air pollution. Older vehicles
tend to be more polluting, and you would definitely benefit the environment
by retiring your vehicle.”
Keoleian says if I get a newer car, it won’t be leaking oil, and it won’t
putting out nearly as much nitrogen oxide and other chemicals that lead to
smog. Oh yeah, he also says I really need to start looking today.
And so doing the right thing for the environment is going to cost me money.
There’s no way around that. The more I think about my rusty old car, the
more I notice all the OTHER old heaps on the road. Maybe all of you are a
bit like me, hoping to make it through just one more winter without car
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.