Bicycle stacked on top of a motorcycle stack on top of a yellow van stacked on top of a turquoise small bus.

Your Guide to Sustainable Transportation

We live in a world where everyone seems to be on the go, so of course transportation plays a big role in the health of our environment. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation account for about 29% of total U.S. GHG emissions, making it the largest sole contributor. And it continues to rise: between 1990 and 2021, transportation-related GHG emissions increased more than any other sector, including the electrical power industry, which surprised me. Sustainable transportation is more important than ever.

On-road vehicles are responsible for the lion’s share of transportation-related GHG emissions, generating 74%. Over half of that is due to light, medium, and heavy-duty trucks (sorry, truck drivers). Also, I had to google what these truck classification levels meant, so if you don’t know either, you’re in good company.

How can we reduce our transportation carbon footprint?

What you drive matters

But not in a Will Smith “two miles and hour so everybody sees you” kind of way.

exhaust coming from car tailpipe

You don’t have to be a car expert to know that different vehicles have widely varying fuel efficiency. Next time you are looking for a car, pick the least-polluting, most efficient vehicle in your price range that meets your needs. The easy answer, of course, is to go electric. If you want to learn more about those types of vehicles, check out the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide.

You can also look for a car that has the idle stop-start system, especially if you spend a lot of time in stop-and-go traffic. This is where the engine turns off when you come to a stop and restarts when you release the brake pedal. I have this is my car and I think it is a great feature.

If you can afford it and it works for your lifestyle, consider a scooter. I have a small Vespa that I use for short commutes and it is so much fun. The tank holds just over a gallon and I fill it maybe every couple of weeks. And major bonus: the motorcycle parking at the hospital I work at is a million miles closer than where I have to park my car. Just some food for thought.

Taking care of your vehicle also makes a difference in its performance and gas mileage. Stay on top of scheduled maintenance and ensure your tires are always properly inflated.

Drive more efficiently

No matter what kind of car you drive, there are numerous driving strategies to improve your gas mileage, both saving you money and decreasing emissions.

  • Aggressive driving (speeding, rapid acceleration and braking) wastes gas. It can lower your gas mileage by roughly 15-30% at highway speeds and 10-40% in stop-and-go traffic.
  • Using cruise control can help you save gas by driving at a more constant speed.
  • Don’t speed. You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.25 per gallon for gas.
  • Remove rooftop boxes when not in use, and use them judiciously. They can reduce gas mileage around 2-8% in city driving, 6-17% on the highway, and 10-25% at Interstate speeds (65 mph to 75 mph). Rear-mount cargo boxes or trays reduce fuel economy by much less—only 1% or 2% in city driving and 1% to 5% on the highway.
  • Don’t store unnecessary items in your car. Fuel efficiency can decrease 1% for every extra 100 pounds of cargo.
  • Open windows instead of using the a/c. At least to where you can stand it—those >100 degree days get rough. Use a windshield shade and consider investing in tinted windows to help keep the temperature down.
  • Turn the key, be idle free. Don’t park your car and leave it idling. Open a window or get out of the car to wait instead of running the a/c.

Drive less

This is the most obvious and effective methods of sustainable transportation. I’m sure you know what I’m going to say, but I’m going to reiterate it anyway.

  • If you have the option and you won’t go crazy, work from home.
  • Walk or bike when you can. Use a local bike-share if available.
  • Carpool or ride-share.
  • Utilize public transportation.
  • For longer distances, take a train, if available. After walking and biking, this method of transportation has the smallest carbon footprint. Unfortunately, the U.S has terrible infrastructure for this. If you’ve ever travelled by train in Europe, you know what I mean.

We know these things, and I absolutely know they are often much less convenient than driving alone. But really take a moment to consider utilizing one of these methods even one day each week.

Reduce Transportation-Related Waste

What to do with old bikes

Sell or donate unwanted bikes to a local charity or thrift shop.

Bike recycling

  • Bikes that are no longer usable can be sold at a scrap yard for recycling.
  • E-bike batteries are accepted for recycling at most bike shops, check Call2Recycle for specific locations.

What to do with old helmets

Most donation centers will not accept safety equipment. Helmets that are not expired or damaged can be given away or sold. I had luck passing on an old helmet through my local Buy Nothing group.

Can helmets be recycled?

No helmets cannot be recycled. If unusable, dispose in garbage.

Eco-friendly auto detailing

Some car washes are able to recycle and and reuse water, and many sources state that car washes in general use less water than home washes. This KSL article talks about what car washes in Utah are doing to curb their water usage. Ask about the practices at your car wash of choice.

If you are a DIY car washer, be mindful about your own water usage, namely make sure you are using a nozzle on your hose and not letting it run freely…a free running hose can go through 10 gallons/minute, using 100 gallons for just a 10 minute wash! An even better option is to use a power sprayer, which will generally use even less water. I have this electric Greenworks pressure washer. It is lightweight and easy to use, but powerful enough to get things super clean.

Eco-friendly detailing products

Waterless Wash

Chemical Guys Waterless Car Wash spray is awesome to spot clean in between washes, or I’ve used it to clean my whole scooter. Chemical Guys also has a Waterless Wash & Wax or you can try this Aero Cosmetics wash and wax kit made with plant-based, biodegradable ingredients.


Choose on that is non-toxic, especially free of phosphates and sulfates, as well as biodegradable.

Interior Cleaner
Wheel & Tire Cleaner

Find more eco-friendly cleaning products here.

What to do with old keys

Donate to Keys for Kids, which helps students with things like in-school scholarships and replenishment of negative lunch accounts.

How to recycle keys

All metal keys can be recycled for scrap metal. Take fobs to a place that recycles e-waste.

We already discussed driving more efficiently to decrease your transportation carbon footprint, but what do you do with old auto parts and non-working vehicles?

Auto recycling

Donate an old car, truck, motorcycle, RV, or boat to your favorite non-profit or charity. Numerous organizations will take the donation of a vehicle, utilizing the proceeds from its salvage. See what charities accept vehicle donations here.

Junk My Car will pick up and pay for old cars, jet skis, boats, trailers, RVs, and motorcycles. Or sell for scrap metal recycling at a local scrapyard.

Learn more about metal recycling here.

How to dispose of old car parts

Car PartReduce or ReuseRecyclable?
Air FilterWash and reuse rather than replace.No.
BatteryYes. Most auto parts stores recycle vehicle batteries, check for the closest location near you.
License PlatesSell to collectors.Yes, at a scrap metal recycler.
Metal PartsYes. Autozone takes brake rotors, suspension parts, or engine components. Any metal parts can go to a scrap metal recycler.
Oil FilterYes, at O’Reilly or Firestone.
TiresYes. Recycle tires through Discount Tires, a local tire recycler, or use a junk hauler like 1-800-GOT-JUNK to take and recycle your tires for you.
Wheel RimsYes, at a scrap metal recycler.
Windshield Wiper BladesConsider silicone blades, which reportedly last longer before needing to be replaced.No.

What to do With Auto Fluids

Do not throw auto fluids in the trash. Many of these fluids are flammable and contain harmful chemicals that leach into the ground, potentially harming wildlife, as well as contaminating fresh water sources.

According to the EPA, “used oil from a single oil change can pollute up to one million gallons of freshwater. Improper disposal of used oil, which includes oil leaking from cars, contributes significantly to stormwater pollution. The EPA estimates that American households improperly dump about 193 million gallons of used oil every year, or roughly the equivalent of 17 Exxon Valdez oil spills.”

Check whether local auto shops or car parts centers accept old fluids, or drop off at a national retailer.

FluidWhere to Dispose
AntifreezeDispose at a landfill hazardous waste drop-off or other location that can dispose of these materials.
Brake FluidFirestone
Gear OilO’Reilly / Firestone
Hydraulic FluidPep Boys / O’Reilly / Firestone
Motor OilO’Reilly
Power Steering FluidO’Reilly / Firestone
Transmission FluidPep Boys / O’Reilly / Firestone
Scroll to Top