Cat Out Of The Bag: The Ultimate Greenwash?


There are few pieces of modern transport technology with more greatly hyped (and outdated) green credentials than the catalytic converter. From its introduction to U.S. automobile market in 1975, cats have been splitting up nitrogen oxides and reducing deadly carbon monoxide into the less noxious (but still utterly undesirable) carbon dioxide.

Fitting a catalytic converter makes your car less fuel efficient, and that means more of a strain on world fuel supplies. Furthermore, a machine that manufactures carbon dioxide could never truly be labeled “green”. But since cat converters strip the acidic oxides out of car emissions that contribute to acid rain, the hype has emphasized the old lesser-of-two-evils thinking: some improvement is better than none, right?

Tell that to the at-risk inhabitants of Norilsk.

Catalytic converters remove pollutants from car exhaust fumes using two metals, platinum and palladium. Most of the latter (reports New Scientist’s Fred Pearce) comes from smelting plants in Norilsk – and Norilsk pumps out two million tons of sulphur dioxide every year. In other words, poisoning the air to clean the air.

Catalytic converters were never going to be more than a fire-fighting measure against the damage we’re doing to our environment, and in fact, they are fanning the flames. Perhaps we should stop spending so much time, money and ingenuity dealing with the symptoms“¦

Image: Los Angeles smog by steven.buss

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.