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General · 17th May 2014
Barry Saxifrage
What weighs sixteen billion pounds yet hides in plain sight?

(NOTE: This article originally published May 12, 2014 on the

This is the first article in a "Car Carbon" series that explores the intersection of cars, oil and climate change. As the headlines fill with the expanding fights over tar sands pipelines (Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, KinderMorgan Transmountain, and others), I thought it would be a good time to shine a light on the primary source of our oil demand - - our cars.

Let's start with some eye candy.

The folks at have produced yet another beautiful and information-packed animation about our carbon pollution. A couple years ago I featured one of their animations in an article about New York City's carbon footprint and Hurricane Sandy. Now the digital masters at Carbon Visuals are back with a whirlwind tour of the world's cars and the resulting resource and climate pollution impacts.

Click here to view it

Missing from this great animation, however, is the 16 billion tonne elephant in the room.

The 16 billion tonne elephant

Carbon Visuals calculated that around 1.3 billion tonnes of resources that go into world's cars - - metal, plastics, glass - - go into all the world's cars. To give visual context they created the first graphic below in which this billion tonne cube of resources dwarfs some of the world's most famous skyscrapers.

However, they left out one resource that goes into our cars that is twelve times larger. What I'm talking about, of course, is gasoline.

Sixteen billion tonnes of gasoline will have to be put into today's cars for them to function. I've added this gasoline resource to the top of Carbon Visual's resource cube (see the second graphic below). This towering orange obelisk would reach 23,000 feet into the sky.

When it comes to the resources that go into our cars, gasoline clearly dominates.

Recycled vs discarded as trash

A more important metric in my mind is how much of these resources end up as trash when we are done using the cars.

Let's start with the 1.25 billion tonnes of metal, plastic and glass. Around 20%, mostly the plastics, will become trash. The remaining 80%, mostly metals, will be recycled and reused. The US Environmental Protection Agency reports:

"Each year, nearly all of the 27 million cars around the world that reach the end of their useful life are recovered for recycling. Automotive recyclers now can recover nearly 80 percent of the total materials by weight from a vehicle … More than 25 million tons of materials are recycled from vehicles each year ... Five million tons are disposed of in landfills each year."

That means around 0.25 billion tonnes of trash will result from all the metal, glass, rubber and plastics when people are done using all today's cars.

In comparison, the gasoline will create sixty times more trash.

All 15.75 billion tonnes of gasoline will be dumped directly into the environment as climate pollution. None of it will be recycled.

Billions of tonnes of that climate pollution will remain in our atmosphere for decades to centuries, driving dangerous climate disruptions. Several billion tonnes more will dissolve into our oceans where they will turn to acid, intensifying global warming's "evil twin" - - ocean acidification.

Psychologically it is easy to lose appreciation for the fact that gasoline absolutely dwarfs the rest of the car. We see the metal, plastic, rubber and glass that go into a car - - but not the gasoline. We don't see the gasoline when it goes in and we don't see it when it gets dumped back out as climate pollution.

Out of sight, out of mind. Out of control...

Click here to continue reading the full article at the Vancouver Observer
Image from Carbon Visual's animation
Image from Carbon Visual's animation
Same image with gasoline added on top in orange
Same image with gasoline added on top in orange