Earthtalk is a weekly environmental column made available to our readers from the editors of E/The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that most of the big car rental companies have gone “green” lately. What’s the story? – Ari Zucker, New York, NY
No doubt, rental car companies large and small have responded to increased consumer demand for fuel efficiency in the last few years by stocking up on gasoline-electric hybrids and other vehicles with better mileage and lower emissions. But whether or not these companies will continue their commitment to fuel efficiency as gas prices fall and consumers begin to look again at bigger cars remains to be seen.
Hertz may have sparked the trend in 2006 when it launched its Green Collection, which includes thousands of fuel efficient cars such as the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Buick LaCrosse and Hyundai Sonata. These models, now available at 50 airport rental locations, average 31 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway, and most carry the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) SmartWay certification, indicating lower greenhouse gas and other emissions. In June 2007, Hertz bolstered its green offerings significantly by incorporating some 3,400 Toyota Prius hybrids into its American rental fleet.
Meanwhile, other companies are towing the line as well. Avis and its partner Budget offer 2,500 hybrids (Toyota’s Prius and Nissan’s Altima) for rent in the U.S. And Advantage Rent-a-Car, a smaller but up-and-coming player in the industry, has pledged to turn 100 percent of its rental fleet “green” by 2010.
Not to be outdone, Enterprise—the nation’s largest rental car company with a total fleet of 1.1 million rental vehicles—offers some 440,000 vehicles that get 28 mpg or better in highway driving. Some 5,000 of the total are hybrids (Toyota’s Camry and Prius and Ford’s Escape SUV), while another 73,000 can run on the ethanol-based biofuel or on regular gas. Customers of Enterprise (or one of its sister brands, Alamo or National) can also opt to pay an extra $1.25 per rental to offset their carbon emissions. (Funds go to Terra Pass, which funds clean energy projects.) And last year the company opened several new “green branches” where 60 percent of the vehicles for rent are hybrids or other fuel efficient models.
Of course, green car rentals do come with a premium. Renting a hybrid typically costs $5 to $15 more per day than an equivalent conventional car. In a recent comparison on overall costs (including gas expenses), SmarterTravel.com’s Sarah Pascarella figured that a two-day trip from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park was $55 cheaper in one of Hertz’s Hyundai Accent economy cars than in a hybrid Prius from their Green Collection. Comparisons with vehicles from Avis and others yielded similar results. “I found choosing an economy car over a hybrid was often the more economical choice,” she reports.
In order to encourage greener rentals despite the cost premium, San Francisco International Airport now offers travelers a $15 credit if they rent a hybrid from any of the companies operating there. Elsewhere, in-town rental locations usually offer better deals on hybrids, although customers should still expect to pay a premium for renting green no matter where they are—at least until both supply and demand for such vehicles rises, which will inevitably lead to price reductions.
Dear EarthTalk: Are any major brands of disposable tissues, paper towels, napkins and toilet paper yet using recycled content and chlorine-free bleaching? – Sylvia Comstock, Montpelier, VT
Not many. In fact, some of the biggest names in disposable paper products are the worst offenders. According to the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), forests at home and abroad are being destroyed to make toilet paper, facial tissues, paper towels and other disposable paper products. Giant paper producers such as Kimberly-Clark (Scott, Cottonelle, Kleenex and Viva) and Procter & Gamble (Puffs, Charmin and Bounty) are, in the words of NRDC, “forcing the destruction of our continent’s most vibrant forests, and devastating the habitat for countless wildlife species in the process.”
Much of the virgin pulp used by these large manufacturers comes from Canada’s boreal forest. Some 500,000 acres of boreal forest in Ontario and Alberta alone—key habitat for caribou, lynx, wolves and scores of birds—are felled each year to provide pulp for disposable paper. Beyond wildlife concerns, Canada’s boreal forest, which stretches from coast to coast, comprises perhaps the world’s largest terrestrial storehouse of carbon dioxide, so it is critical to keep it intact to help mitigate global warming.
Kimberly-Clark uses some 1.1 million cubic meters of trees from Canada’s boreal forests each year to produce 465,000 metric tons of pulp. Only 19 percent of the pulp it uses to make home use disposable paper products comes from recycled sources. Some of its brands, including Kleenex and Scott, contain no recycled content whatsoever. Nor do Procter and Gamble’s Bounty, Charmin or Puffs, says NRDC.
Another issue with tissue (and paper overall) is the use of chlorine for whitening. Chlorine used in many bleaching processes contributes to the formation of dioxins and furans, chemicals that end up in our air and water and can cause cancer. Safer processes use oxygen compounds and result in paper that is “totally chlorine free,” “process chlorine free” (chlorine free except for recycled fibers that were previously chlorine-bleached) or “elemental chlorine free,” which substitutes safer chlorine dioxide for chlorine.
NRDC and other groups are pressuring the tissue products industry to change its ways, and are working to educate consumers about their options when buying tissue paper products. NRDC’s online “Shopper’s Guide to Home Tissue Products” offers reams of free advice on which brands to look for—and which to avoid. Marcal is the only household name that NRDC rates high on paper sourcing (100 percent recycled and 40 to 60 percent post-consumer content) and chlorine use (process chlorine-free). Brands ranking highest (up to 80 percent post-consumer content and process-chlorine free) include 365 (the Whole Foods brand), Seventh Generation, Earth First, and Planet, among others. No brands are totally chlorine free.
In general, consumers should seek out brands that specifically tout use of 100 percent recycled materials with a high percentage (40 percent or more) of post-consumer waste, and not just keywords like “green” or “eco” on their labels, which may be misleading. Also, before you even purchase that next roll of disposable paper think about how you can reduce the amount you use in the first place. Paper tissues, towels and napkins, for example, have re-usable options in handkerchiefs and cotton towels and napkins.
Image Credits: dpriddy and species snob – courtesy flickr
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