The Green Piece - Tuesday 30th June 2009
It was a clear winner in our poll to determine the ‘Green Car Manufacturer of the Year’ in 2008 – but 2009 has been much more difficult for Toyota.
After establishing itself as a leader in the green car race, Toyota has been pegged back in recent times. Despite the shortcomings of US manufacturers General Motors and Chrysler, the Japanese manufacturer has faced competition closer to home from Honda and Nissan with the former temporarily out-selling the Prius with its Honda Insight (read more in our article ‘Insight the top hybrid performer’) and the latter claiming the hybrid route is full of shortcomings and that electric cars are the best way forward.
Through it all Toyota has had a clear ray of hope, with the launch of the 2010 Toyota Prius just around the corner. The vehicle has earned almost iconic status, lauded by celebrities and generally seen as the ‘ultimate green car’. However, in recent weeks even its reputation has been tarnished.
How green is this green car?
The Prius came under fire in The Washington Post, which openly questioned its manufacturing process as explained in our article ‘Could the Prius be harmful to the environment?’
Among its criticisms, it pointed out that the nickel used for the vehicle’s battery is mined at the notorious site in Sudbury, Ontario, where there have been reports of various environmental issues.
From there, it embarks on a lengthy, and presumably environmentally harmful, journey around the world. First it heads to Wales… then to China… and finally to Japan where it is then shipped for sale worldwide.
The company has also faced criticism because some of its manufacturing plans could threaten historical Japanese rice paddies as outlined in our article ‘Could Toyota manufacturing hit rice paddies?’ Environmentalists have hit out at the test centre plans which could lead to the destruction of some of the natural habitat of the rare gray faced buzzard and the oriental honey buzzard.
Toyota hits back
For its part, Toyota is not taking the criticism lying down. It responded by issuing a Press release pointing out the positives of its manufacturing process and in particular its so-called eco-factory in Tsutsumi, Japan – you can read more on this subject in our article ‘Toyota highlights its eco-factory’.
It points out that it has five eco-factories around the world and that Tsutsumi in particular meets some impressive environmental standards. For example, it has held the ISO14001 green standard for environmental management since 1996; it meets half of its electricity requirements through solar panels; it uses energy saving lighting; and the building even utilises photocatalytic paint that reacts to the sunlight and breaks down harmful nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere.
Both sides of the argument certainly have merits and it’s easy to see why the processes involved in the production of the Toyota Prius have been focused on. After all, this is the world’s most popular green car – so the shortcomings of its manufacturing process are perhaps more eye-catching than those of a vehicle you don’t expect to be green.
However, where the critics are perhaps missing the mark is that the Prius’s manufacturing is no less green than those of a conventional vehicle and while battery toxicity is a concern there has been clear progress in this sector. What’s more is that Toyota has made huge strides in cleaning up its manufacturing process – seemingly at least on a par with any other manufacturer – and while there is still a long way to go, its efforts should be applauded.
If we accept that the manufacturing process from all vehicle manufacturers has its faults, but that Toyota is among the greenest, then perhaps the focus should be on the end result – and the Toyota Prius is significantly greener than the conventional cars that are manufactured in a similar way and will do more harm to the environment over their lifetime.
Of course there may be greener alternatives in the future – electrics and fuel cell cars for example, when the infrastructure is in place – but for now hybrid cars remain the most realistic alternative for most. It would be wrong to use their manufacturing as an excuse to stick with the norm and keep on gas guzzling.