The oxymoronic Toyota Prius?
The Toyota Prius, called Prii collectively, have been a topic of great interest and confusion to me since I first read about them in 2003. Branded a green and economical car, people flocked to purchase one. As of March 2013, 2.93 million Prii have been sold worldwide.
Prii come in various models, but most have 2 engines, one petrol, and one electric. With power generating gimmicks such as recycling energy wasted when braking, the latest models are reported to produce 50mpg. Very economical and green, don’t you think? The petrol motor is used to power the car when the electric motor runs out of juice (which will re-charge through useage).
The Toyota Prius, hybrid car. Source
However, when you consider the various ‘rare’ metals and minerals that are used in the production of this car and its batteries, and the method used to extract them, their green credentials drop considerably.
The extraction of rare earth metals each year creates 25 million tonnes of waste water laced with cancer causing heavy metals such as cadmium, and release harmful gasses such as fluorine and sulphur dioxide. These rare earth metals are primarily sourced from China, who flooded the market with cheap and high quality products. This cheapness was partially due to the fact that they had no legislation in place to determine how the metals were mined, it was simply a race to find the next seam at any expense to the environment.
Aerial photo of Bayan Obo mine in China and the surrounding coloured landscape. Click image for source.
One such Chinese mine, Bayan Obo, pictured above, produces around half of the worlds supply of 17 rare earth metals. Reports say that it releases up to 420,000 cubic feet of toxic gas for every tonne of metal extracted. So, in 2008 when China supplied 139,000 tonnes of these metals, up to 58,380,000,000 cubic feet of toxic gasses were released. Just looking at the surrounding ground shows red vegetation, brown grassland, black geology and green water. This ‘alien planet’ contains many dangerous metals and chemicals which are then washed into rivers, which not only provide habitats for aquatic life, but also provide water for human consumption, irrigation, washing and bathing.
I’m not going to argue that the cars are not ‘green’, or produce facts that could show up the Prius when compared to other non hybrid cars, because I think that hybrid cars are something that will become more necessary and more economical in the future, and their production in the current day is a step in the right direction, but with such total disregard for the environment created where it’s raw materials are sourced, I can’t help but feel that Toyota initially wanted to build this car purely for the financial implications (they have now found a way to avoid using the rare earth metals in their motors).
In my personal opinion, I think the purchase of a Prius (or for that matter, any hybrid car) is similar to buying Abercrombie and Fitch clothing, eating ‘healthy superfoods’ (grown so vastly in their originating countries that it is damaging the ecosystem and ruining traditions) or buying an iPad.
It is bought for the look rather than its assets. The purchaser wants people to think that they have ethics, standards, morals, call them what ever you want, that it makes them look civilised, sensible and responsible. Sure to their friends, they will look the bees knees, the envy of everyone they know. But to the more learned, less material people, what it actually shows is the opposite: that they care more about their looks than the origins of their products, care more about their life rather than the many lives that have been damaged to benefit them, and that they are infact not civilised, sensible and responsible people, but quite the opposite.