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Margaret Hartley's Greenpoint
by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Reusing and recycling cars

When I was about to come into possession of a hand-me-down car, I stopped by the mechanic near work to get his take on the situation.

The car is old, but not as old as my car. It has high mileage, but not as high as the old car. And it is clearly a superior vehicle: highly efficient, well maintained and with key parts recently replaced.

Still, my mechanic came up with a baffling caveat. “Make sure you really like it,” he said, “because you’re not going to want to drive a car you hate.”

“But I’m always driving cars I hate,” I told him. That is because I really don’t like cars. Cars are big and noisy and expensive, spew noxious fumes and make people aggressive.

I am always thinking up ways to avoid driving cars, and periodically whine about the lack of mass transit, or at least any mass transit that people who do not live in fairly urban areas can use.

Since I live in a fairly rural area, I wouldn’t mind having to ride a bike — or even drive — a few miles to a bus or train station to be transported to work with my fellow commuters. But the best that is offered is a bus station 22 miles from home that will get me within a 40-minute walk to work. That makes my hourlong car commute seem almost reasonable.

In a perfect world, we could all just stay home, working in our gardens, walking to work or telecommuting via the Internet, and maybe carpooling occasionally in shared neighborhood cars to more distant places for periodic visits or hiking trips.

Alas, it is not a perfect world. So I drive a car, every day, back and forth to work. And I’m fine with driving whatever car shows up whenever the old one gives out, because I don’t really care what I drive as long as it gets me where I’m going.

My mechanic gave me some other advice: that I should consider the hand-me-down a godsend because I could expect the transmission on my old car to go at any moment.

That moment came last week, and I can tell you I was pretty happy that I already had possession of the hand-me-down. I was also happy that I managed to drift the car with no transmission into our home mechanic’s parking lot, and that by jogging my son and I were able to make it to our destination, the high school play, on time.

Now the trick is to dispose of the old car.

Our home mechanic said we should take everything we want out of it, and he’ll call junk yards for the best deal. Then he began to wax poetic about junk yards around the country, especially the one that recently sent him a brake valve for a late-’80s Honda wagon he’s been fixing up. “They don’t make that valve anymore,” he said.

We have often had cars old enough that our mechanics have been forced to find parts in distant junk yards, and the Internet has made that job a lot easier. Small parts like brake valves and big parts like doors or whole engines are regularly removed from wrecked or junked vehicles and resold. That makes rebuilt transmissions available to old car owners, and it makes recycling cars a $25 billion a year industry in the United States.

That figure comes from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which says 84 percent of a car’s material content can be recycled, including the carpets, tires and plastics. Once fluids are drained and useful things removed, cars are crushed and sent through a shredder to have the iron parts sorted out. Metals can be reused to make new cars.

I emptied the old car, which my mechanic says is far too old to consider a rebuilt transmission. I took all the canvas shopping bags and ice skates from the trunk, and the umbrella, ice scraper and water bottles from under the seats. In the pocket behind the passenger seat I found three of my son’s favorite books, an ace bandage, a dozen pens and pencils, two pads and a stash of dried orange peels.

For the few weeks before that old car died, we had a spare, which brought us pretty close to that ideal of a neighborhood car. We offered it for extended loans to anyone who needed it.

Sometimes we forgot to empty it first, and once I couldn’t find my skis or boots when a friend was on her way over for some cross-country skiing.

“Oops,” my husband said. “I guess Dennis has them. His car’s not running.”

It was OK. We have spare old ski boots, and I borrowed my son’s skis for the day. And Dennis only had the old car for a week, until his own old car was fixed. We thought he might like to keep ours, but it died first.

But he had some advice for us too: take the alternator out because it fits one of the tractors, and keep the battery because it’s good. Dennis and my husband share tractors and they are constantly working on one or another of them in our yard or his. And one or two of them generally needs a jump, so a spare battery is a good thing.

I guess I’m glad the old car is stuck at the mechanic’s and that he’s on the phone to junk yards. Otherwise my husband might think it’s a good idea to keep it in the yard for parts. Or hay storage.

I want one more thing off the old car before it gets junked: the fairly new studded snow tires, which will fit my husband’s very old station wagon.

Of course, that’s presuming the transmission holds out until next winter. If not, we’ll be looking for a new hand-me-down. Maybe that late-’80s Honda wagon will be ready by then.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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