The widespread use of the automobile for personal transportation has been an American institution since Henry Ford proclaimed, "People can have the Model T in any color — so long as it's black." And, along with this widespread use, there have always been people who have taken full ownership of maintaining their vehicle — it fits with American feelings of independence and can-do attitudes.

In order to help you think about the environment when maintaining your car, we have put together a brief quiz to test your know-how. Have fun and good luck!


1. Your old car's air conditioner hasn't been working correctly. After checking the ducts, vents, electrical connections, compressors, and everything else, you've determined that the problem is with the refrigerant inside the air conditioning unit. To solve this problem, you:

a. Open the whole thing up and try to figure out exactly why the refrigerant that is sitting in the tank isn't working.
b. Bring it into the shop — air conditioner technicians have to be certified now.
c. Forget about getting it fixed; the summers aren't too hot in the Northwest anyway.
d. Get your neighbor involved, and use that can of refrigerant left over from the '80's.

Answer Key

    In older cars, the refrigerant used for the air conditioning system was made up of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which have been shown to "eat into" the protective layer of ozone in the earth's upper atmosphere, and also play a part in global climate change. The ozone layer is vital to the earth and its inhabitants, with one of its roles protecting us from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. Breakdown in this layer results in more radiation from the sun reaching the earth, which can result in increased skin cancer and harm to plants and animals we depend on. In addition, the persistence of CFCs in the lower atmosphere for 100 years or more is disrupting the balance of gases in the atmosphere, and is believed to have an impact on the global climate.
    The manufacture of CFCs for air conditioning has been banned. Older cars may use the dwindling supplies of CFCs, but all cars built since 1995 have a refrigerant known as HFC-134a (a hydrofluorocarbon, also known as R-134a) in their systems. HFC-134a is not an ozone depleting chemical, but it is a greenhouse gas that can increase global climate change. HFC-134a is an improvement over CFCs, and research is continuing to find a replacement for HFC-134a – one that is not a greenhouse gas.
    To prevent CFCs or HFCs leaks, air conditioners have to be carefully drained, and the refrigerant has to be "caught" by special equipment. All technicians handling air conditioner refrigerants must be certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and all reputable auto repair facilities have this equipment, as well as a staff person who is certified.
    Take your car into a certified repair shop. CFCs are the major hazard to the Earth's ozone layer. One chlorine atom can destroy more than 100,000 ozone molecules – so what you do can make a big difference! Don't mess around with the only atmosphere we have.

Which answer did you select?

a. Minus one point. Hello, you've just released CFCs. An increase in skin cancer is one direct result of ozone loss in the upper atmosphere.
b. Plus one point. Professionals exist for a reason; let them handle it.
c. Plus half a point. You might want to make sure that there isn't anything left in the system that could be venting to the atmosphere.
d. Minus one point. Two heads in this regard add up to less than one..

For more information about air conditioners and CFCs, check out:
• The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) webpage "The Science of Ozone Depletion,", provides links to articles that give overviews, shorter pieces that focus on specific aspects of ozone depletion, international organizations that issue regular updates, and images of ozone levels and ozone depletion.

• Natural Resources Defense Council Global Warming 101 fact sheet:

• EPA fact sheet, "It's Your Choice: Retrofitting Your Car's A/C System," found at

• EPA fact sheet for repair facilities, "Keeping Your Customers Cool: Servicing Vehicle Air-Conditioning Systems During The CFC Phaseout"


2. It's a Saturday afternoon, and you have just finished changing your oil in record time. Before cleaning off and celebrating, you have to do something with the full oil drip pan and the old oil filter. You decide to:

a. Pour the oil down the storm drain in the street. It must be okay; it goes to the public sewer, right?
b. Save the oil for the wood stove — every now and then it needs an extra kick.
c. Pour the oil into a clean container; leave the filter draining into the oil pan for 24 hours. Tomorrow you'll cap your oil change by taking the used oil and filter to a local used oil collection facility (for example, an auto parts store or local hazardous waste collection facility).
d. Spread the oil on dirt piles in the backyard — you've had enough of those dust storms.

Answer Key

    Most storm drains in the street are not hooked up to the public sewer system; in fact, many lead directly to streams, reaching lakes and rivers. Even if storm drains are connected to sewers, treatment plants are not equipped to handle oil coming from houses. It takes specialized systems and equipment to remove oil from water.
    Oil poured down household drains and onto the ground can reach lakes, rivers and groundwater, and contains contaminants such as lead, chromium, arsenic — compounds that can be dangerous to the health of humans and animals, both in the short- and long-term. One quart of oil can pollute 250,000 gallons of drinking water.         Used oil is recyclable. Two and one half quarts of lubricating oil is gained by re-refining one gallon of used oil. You can participate in oil recycling by draining used oil into a clean container with a tight fitting cap. Do not mix the recovered oil with any other liquid, and make sure the oil is free from dirt, leaves and other debris. Many auto parts stores will accept your oil for recycling at no charge.

Which answer did you select?

a. Minus one point. Think about who and what is downstream from you (and who's upstream!).
b. Minus one point. Burning used oil creates lots of air pollution problems, and could lead to health problems in the house. Don't mess around with adding "enhancers" to your wood stove.
c. Plus one point. You're an oil recycling superstar. Teach your friends and family how to recycle oil!
d. Minus one point; oil is not an acceptable dust suppressant. Plant some native bushes and grasses to control erosion.

More information about oil can be found at the following websites:
• City of Seattle Water Quality Consortium motor oil tips:

• Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department checklist/factsheet for disposing of used oil.

• Monroe County (IN) Solid Waste Management District fact sheet about motor oil. For example, it notes that, "according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, over 200 million gallons of used oil is tossed into the trash, spilled onto the ground or poured down drains and sewers each year. The catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill was small compared to the amount of oil dumped into backyards, ditches, and farm fields by Do-It-Yourself (DIY) oil changers."


3. It's been a long week, and you've decided to take an hour or so to transform your car from a dusty hunk of metal into a clean driving machine (trying to remember the color along the way). To do this, you decide to:
a. Wash the car in the street/driveway, with all water, soap and grime going "away."
b. Wash the car at the local do-it-yourself car wash.
c. Wash the car on the lawn or a gravel bed, away from all sewer drains and wells.
d. Forget it. It's a sunny day in Seattle, so why spend it getting wet?

Answer Key

    Nothing ever goes "away." If your soapy water ends up in the storm drain, it will pollute streams and harm fish, even if the soap is labeled "biodegradable." As noted in a City of Seattle Frequently Asked Questions page about Surface Water Quality (formerly located at but no longer available):

Many poisons are biodegradable. Biodegradable only means the soap will break down in time. It is still toxic to fish and other living organisms. Soapy water needs to be disposed of in the sewer system, such as an inside sink or toilet.
    If you wash your car on the street, use only water. If you need to use soap (to cut grease, for example), use a product that has been shown to biodegrade quickly. Empty your bucket into a sink or toilet, not the storm drain.
    Or, wash cars on your lawn or a dirt area so that water can return to the groundwater supply, not run off into the storm drain. The chemicals in your soap or detergent could be filtered by the soil and biodegrade in the soil into less harmful substances, away from fish.
    Better yet, take your car to a commercial carwash. Their wastewater either goes to a wastewater treatment plant or is recycled at the carwash.

Which answer did you select?

a. Minus one point. There is no such place as "away." See the information about polluted water in the oil question.
b. Plus one point. They have the equipment to handle all the soap and grime.
c. Plus one-half point. If you decide to do it home, this is the best way to go.
d. Plus one point. Think of it as a protective layer of dirt. Besides, it'll rain soon anyway..

For more information about car washing, check:
• The information found at the City of Seattle Water Quality Consortium website:

• Also, the information about car washing comes from "A Consumer Guide To Safer Alternatives To Hazardous, Household Products, Part 2," Revision April 1992, "Take Me Shopping," Original Edition Written by Alicia A. Flynn & Rory E. Kessler, Hazardous Waste Management Program, Office of Toxics and Solid Waste Management, Department of Planning and Development, Santa Clara County, California, found at This link also provides information about many automotive products.


4. After a successful afternoon of preventative maintenance, it is time to clean up. As you look at the driveway, you notice that there are a few places where you have spilled some oil, brake fluid, and grease. You decide to:
a. Get the hose and wash the driveway down.
b. Let it stay as a testament to your successful maintenance.
c. Swab up the fluid with rags and/or absorbent such as sawdust or kitty litter.
d. Sweep everything over to the side where the grass used to be.

Answer Key

    Never hose down oil and grease spills. To absorb grease and oil spills on concrete surfaces, sprinkle cornmeal, sawdust, or kitty litter. Allow to sit for several hours, then sweep into a plastic bag and place in the trash. Professional garages always have an absorbent material on hand in case of fluid spills. Be a pro and do likewise. (See: "A Consumer Guide To Safer Alternatives To Hazardous, Household Products, Part 2,"

Which answer did you select?

a. Minus one point. You've may as well have dumped oily wastes into the stream; after all, that's where it is going to end up.
b. Minus one point. The best sign of maintenance is having a smooth running car.
c. Plus one point. Further proof that your parents were right: it is important to clean up after yourself.
d. Minus one point. Give the grass a chance to recovery — clean the stuff up all the way.


5. You're relaxing on the couch, reading The World's Best Congressional Filibusters (unabridged edition), when all of sudden you realize "Wow, it has been at least 40,000 miles since I flushed my radiator." Without any hesitation, you bolt from the couch and get right on it. Once done, you notice a few spills on the ground, and you also have to get rid of the used antifreeze. You decide to:

a. Get the hose and wash the driveway down.
b. Let it stay, since there isn't much. Besides it is an interesting color.
c. Swab up the fluid with rags, then rinse down.
d. Absorb the fluids, sweep up the absorbent, and resolve to bring it to the shop next time — they have other things to read while your waiting.

Answer Key

    It is important to be especially careful with antifreeze. The active ingredient in antifreeze is ethylene glycol, a fatal toxin. Antifreeze has a sweet taste that attracts both animals and children, and a small amount can be lethal. Two ounces can kill a dog; one teaspoon can kill a cat. Make sure that antifreeze is cleaned up quickly and stored out of reach.
    The best thing to do when using antifreeze is to avoid all spills: have materials like drip pans, buckets and drop cloths available to capture all the antifreeze. Soak up all liquids if a spill happens and do not rinse the spill away. All waste antifreeze should be turned over to a waste collection facility, if there is one available, or to a local auto shop if they will accept it. If these options are not available, the captured antifreeze can go to the sanitary sewer if the sewer is willing to accept it. NEVER put the antifreeze into a septic system, dry hole or anything other than sanitary sewer.

Which answer did you select?

a. Minus one point. Washing down the driveway will send the antifreeze to a storm sewer, not a sanitary sewer.
b. Minus two points. Don't fool around with a poison.
c. Plus one point. This minimizes what goes to the sewer.
d. Plus one point. Maybe the shop has the latest volume of Alaska Bear Tales.

For more information about antifreeze check out these sites:
• Medical information about ethylene glycol. From "emedicine: Emergency Medicine, an on-line medical reference,"

• Environmental Health Center, a Division of the National Safety Council, fact sheet about ethylene glycol,


6. If you have no idea how to service your own car, then you should:

a. Go to a shop that has certified air conditioning handlers and recycles fluids.
b. Take your car to a shop that is recognized by your local government (like EnviroStars in the Puget Sound region, WA, or Eco-Logical Business Program in the Portland, OR area), for properly managing and/or reducing wastes.
c. Buy a new car.
d. Let your neighbor work on it.
e. Take the bus, carpool, walk, or ride a bike!

Which answer did you select?

a. Plus one point. Support those who are keeping their shop clean and green.
b. Plus one point. Just like you, your car deserves the best.
c. Zero points. This will get expensive, and eventually one of the cars you buy will have to have some maintenance.
d. Minus one point. Just because the work isn't in your backyard doesn't mean spills and wastes won't be.
e. Plus two points. Sometimes the best preventative maintenance program is not needing any maintenance program.

For more information about the environmental business programs in the Pacific Northwest, or about car pooling and biking, check these references:
• EnviroStars program, operating in King, Kitsap and Snohomish counties, Washington: Contact: Laurel Tomchick, 206-689-3063

• Green Star®, Inc., a nationwide, non-profit organization that encourages pollution prevention, waste reduction and energy efficiency for businesses, schools and government agencies. Green Star has chapters in Alaska, Idaho and Washington.

• The Eco-Logical Business Program, operating in the Portland OR area, (503) 823-5320.

• For public transit, carpooling/car sharing and biking in the King County, WA area:

• For public transit in the Portland, OR area, visit Tri-Met: For information about carpooling and biking check out ( Information about car sharing in the City of Portland can be found at


5-7 points — Congratulations! You've set a great standard for all do-it-yourselfers!
2-4 points — Keep up the good work and you'll be the next person all the neighborhood kids look up to.
0-1 points — Do us all a favor and bring your car to a shop. Better yet, take a bus.
For more information on how and why to keep your car running smoothly for the environment, check out the following sources.

• EPA's Office of Mobile sources:

• "CLEAN CARS — CLEAN AIR," A Consumer Guide to Auto Emission Inspection and Maintenance Programs, Consumer Federation of America,

• "Clean Cars for Clean Air: Inspection and Maintenance Programs," EPA 400-F-92-016, January 1993, Fact Sheet OMS-14,

• The Automotive Service Association® "Automotive Tips" button,


© 1999, Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center
phone: 206-352-2050, e-mail:, web: