Surprise! 'Cash For Clunkers' Was Really Bad For The Environment

Illustration for article titled Surprise! 'Cash For Clunkers' Was Really Bad For The Environment

Remember "Cash for Clunkers," that program implemented in 2009 where the federal government was giving people money to buy shiny, fuel-efficient new cars if they traded in their old gas-guzzling clunkers? It was supposed to be a win-win situation for both the environment and America's struggling economy.


But one group says that it definitely wasn't good on the environmental count. Why? Because the cars traded in weren't recycled, according a recent story in E Magazine. See, while people were trading in cars that were older and less fuel efficient than modern ones, many of them were perfectly functioning with good engines.

Yet the Car Allowance Rebates System (CARS, isn't that cute) required that the engines had to be destroyed to keep them from going back on the road again. E Magazine's criticism is that the cars and their engines should have been recycled, not shredded. Here's what they said:

According to the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA), 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.

Okay, so scrapping the cars themselves was clearly wasteful. But possibly the worst part is the actual shredding process itself, which sends millions of tons of chemical-laden residue to landfills every year. Recycling would have saved us a lot of oil, too:

...recycling just the plastic and metal would represent 24 million barrels of oil saved each year. Unfortunately, that did not happen with the 690,000 vehicles scrapped during the Cash for Clunkers program.

There's a lot more to a car's impact on the environment than fuel economy and carbon emissions. People never seem to take the production (and destruction) process into account. While Cash for Clunkers may have put a lot of people into fancy newer cars, it's hard to see the benefit to anyone in the long run.

Photo credit Tony Fischer Photography

Hat tip to bobbycrumpley!



There is always a way to "prove" a contrary point. In this case, the author is claiming that many of those engines could have been re-used. Since they weren't tested, that is a claim that's hard to prove or dispute. But I would say that if the "cash for clunkers" rebate exceeded the value someone could get for their used car, that those cars were not in a condition that could be repurposed in an environmentally sound way.

What manufacturer could find a use for the engine from a malaise era car that has few components common to a more modern engine? Would they save money having to test the cams, blocks, bearings, bushings, timing gears/chains/belts, etc? I hardly think so. Anyone who restores cars knows how epically expensive it is to bring an old, beaten down engine back to original factory specs...which is more expensive than buying a brand new crate engine.