How Eco Is Prius Really?

This year, Toyota’s 2013 Prius line dominates the Greenest list–an automotive ranking by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. You may drive a Prius because you care about the planet or because you want to save on gas. Either way, be wary, your eco-friendly and extremely popular hybrid vehicle may not be as green as you think.

1. Any car that burns gasoline generates carbon dioxide. While the results vary in degree, two studies conclude that in many states, driving a mile on grid power produces less “wells-to-wheels” carbon than driving a mile in a 25-mpg gasoline car. The 50-mpg Prius is slightly better in the states with the dirtiest grids–like North Dakota and West Virginia–that use almost entirely coal. But the grid will slowly get cleaner over time with no new coal plants, more natural gas, and a slow but steady growth in the use of renewable energy. So electric cars are better now and will get even cleaner over time–unlike the Prius.

2. If you drive more, because your car uses less gas, then you’re adding to the problem not solving it. If you buy a 2011 Toyota Prius for a round-trip commute that’s 100 miles, you’re still burning 500 gallons of gasoline a year. Whereas if you’d walk, bicycle, carpool, or take mass transit to work, you wouldn’t.

2. We still have to dispose of the car parts eventually. The top factor in determining a car’s environmental cost-per-mile is its recyclability. Because hybrids are newer technology, their parts are less reusable in other makes and models. For example, each Prius battery is made of 32 pounds of nickel. The environmental cost of mining the nickel and the cost of recycling the nickel batteries are significant because there’s not as massive an industry need for regular batteries.

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