Back in 2009, the “Cash for Clunkers” federal program was supposed to be a boon for the environment and the economy. During a limited time, consumers could trade in an old gas-guzzling used car for up to $4,500 cash back towards the purchase of a fuel-efficient new car. It seemed like a win for everyone: the environment, the gasping auto industry and cash-strapped consumers.
Though almost a million people poured into car dealerships eager to exchange their old jalopies for something shiny and new, recent reports indicate the entire program may have actually hurt theenvironment far more than it helped.
According to E Magazine, the “Clunkers” program, which is officially known as the Car Allowance Rebates System (CARS), produced tons of unnecessary waste while doing little to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The program's first mistake seems to have been its focus on car shredding, instead of car recycling. With 690,000 vehicles traded in, that's a pretty big mistake.
According to the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA), automobiles are almost completely recyclable, down to their engine oil and brake fluid. But many of the “Cash for Clunkers” cars were never sent to recycling facilities. The agency reports that the cars’ engines were instead destroyed by federal mandate, in order to prevent dealers from illicitly reselling the vehicles later. The remaining parts of each car could then be put up for auction, but program guidelines also required that after 180 days, no matter how much of the car was left, the parts woud be sent to a junkyard and shredded.
Shredding vehicles results in its own environmental nightmare. For each ton of metal produced by a shredding facility, roughly 500 pounds of “shredding residue” is also produced, which includes polyurethane foams, metal oxides, glass and dirt. All totaled, about 4.5 million tons of that residue is already produced on average every year. Where does it go? Right into a landfill. E Magazine states recycling just the plastic and metal alone from the CARS scraps would have saved 24 million barrels of oil. While some of the “Clunkers” were truly old, many of the almost 700,000 cars were still in perfectly good condition. In fact, many that qualified for the program were relatively “young,” with fuel efficiencies that rivaled newer cars.
And though the point was to get less fuel efficient cars off the roads, with only 690,000 traded in, and over 250 million registered in the U.S., the difference in pollutant levels seems pretty negligible.
But all that vehicular destruction did more than create unnecessary waste for the environment. It also had some far-reaching economic effects.
According to a recent TriCities op-ed from Mike Smith of Ralph Smith Motors in Virginia, CARS created a dearth of used cars, artificially driving up prices. For those who needed an affordable car, but didn’t qualify for the program, this increase in price meant affordable transportation was well out of reach. It also meant used-car dealers, most of whom are independently owned, small-business owners, had little to no stock. According to Smith, 122 Virginia dealers chose not to renew their licenses after that year.
TakePart spoke to Daniel Gray, bestselling tech author and fuel-efficiency expert about the environmental impact of the auto industry. He says that the government is making strides. Chief among them is the announcement of CAFE MPG standards this year, new regulations introduced by the current administration that mandate a minimum fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That’s double the minimum requirement as of right now.
And in the interim, Gray encourages consumers to make informed decisions. “The biggest focus going forward should be to encourage folks to purchase the most fuel-efficient vehicle that fits their needs. We should also look into retrofitting older cars with the latest fuel-saving technology and encourage carbon-neutral, or possibly negative, renewable biofuels.”