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Cash for Clunkers Hurt the Environment

One Report Says Program Did Opposite of its Intentions


Cash for Clunkers Hurt the Environment

Cars sit in a Hollywood, Calif., lot ready for scrappage after being turned in for Cash for Clunkers.

Photo © David McNew/Getty Images

Interesting allegation that Cash for Clunkers did not achieve its goal of improving the environment - largely because it did not allow for engine parts to be recycled.

Here's a quick recap of the Cash for Clunkers program that President Obama signed into law in 2009. President Obama, to give the new car industry a much-needed boost, proposed a program where fuel inefficient used cars could be traded in for new cars. The program took in 690,000 clunkers; basically vehicles worth $4500 or less that got less than 18 mpg.

(At the most basic Cash for Clunkers explanation to get a $3500 credit: the used car had to get 18 mpg combined or less; new car has to get 22 mpg or more and, the base sticker price has to be less than $45,000. You could score the maximum $4500 credit if: the used car has a fuel economy rating of 18 mpg or lower; and, the new car has a fuel economy rating 10 mpg or higher than the used car being turned in.)

Now E Magazine, which focused on environmental issues, says Cash for Clunkers hurt the environment more than it helped for the simple reason that it took used cars that would have been mostly recycled and instead were scrapped.

Under Cash for Clunkers (formally called the Car Allowance Rebates System), the engine, transmission and other drivetrain components had to be destroyed. After all, it wouldn't make sense to allow those components to be used in other fuel-inefficient used cars because that would just prolong the misery being inflicted upon the environment, or so the thinking went at the time.

As E magazine points out, there's a major flaw in that logic that's just being strongly considered almost four years later. As reported, "According to the Automotive Recyclers Association, almost 100% of a vehicle can be recycled. Even the fluids can be reused, according to the ARA. Transmission and brake fluids, anti-freeze, oil, gasoline, diesel and Freon from air conditioners are harvested at scrap yards for use in other vehicles. However, still-functioning engines are the most valuable part of a scrapped car. The engine itself takes the most amount of energy and resources to manufacture, so car companies reap both an environmental and cost benefit from being able to recycle engine parts."

The government, though, mandated the clunkers be scrapped within six months, as opposed to the standard three years. Even if a clunker still had recyclable parts on it, once that deadline hit, everything went into the shredder.

It's when the vehicles hit the shredder that the problems really started for the environment, as E Magazine points out: "Cars that are shredded are turned into small, palm-sized pieces of metal, which is then sold to manufacturers as raw material. The shredded material can be turned back into car parts, or heavy machinery, steel plates, railroad tracks among other products. For each ton of metal recovered by a shredding facility, roughly 500 pounds of shredder residue are produced, meaning about 3 to 4.5 million tons of shredder residue is sent to landfills every year. This shredder residue typically consists of a mix of materials including polyurethane foams, polymers, metal oxides, glass and dirt."

In other words, for every two thousand pounds of material being shredded, 500 pounds was never recycled. The article claims up to 100% of a vehicle can be recycled, which is a dubious claim. Most manufacturers are reporting levels in the low 90s, which is still fairly impressive. So, lets then extrapolate that 2000 lbs of shredded material really equals about 1800 lbs of recyclable material vs. 1500 lbs. of recyclable material.

Was the Cash for Clunkers program a total failure from an environmental standpoint? Of course not. The article seems to think this statistic wasn't that significant but it was: "The clunkers averaged 15.8 mpg, compared with the 25.4 mph for new vehicles being purchased, for an average fuel-economy increase of 61%." What's referred to as a "small difference in fuel economy" was actually quite significant.

How so? Simple math would demonstrate that. Take an average clunker that traveled 15,000 miles per year. It would use 949 gallons of fuel annually. The replacement vehicle would use 590 gallons of fuel annually. That's 247,710,000 gallons of fuel a year those 690,000 vehicles aren't using.

Was Cash for Clunkers ultimately bad for the environment? In some respects it was but the air we're breathing did get somewhat cleaner thanks to its passage. Plus its annual fuel savings can't be denied.

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