The ability to turn a virtually useless scrap of metal into $4,500 toward a new, fuel-efficient vehicle sounded almost too good to be true. It was.
July 27, 2009 marked the beginning of a one-of-a-kind effort President Obama called the Cash for Clunkers plan. Now, nearly a year later, the question remains: Was Cash for Clunkers a success?
In addition to its $3 billion price tag, Cash for Clunkers carries some less-obvious costs. Ironically, the most disturbing data in the Cash for Clunkers debate is not the effect on either the consumers or the economy; it is the effect that the program has on the environment.
In the case of Cash for Clunkers vehicles, “recycling” does not equal “green.” In San Francisco Weekly, Matt Smith writes, “automobile recycling is one of the filthiest toxic-waste-generating industries there is.” When cars are recycled, they are stripped of their non-metal components and placed in a giant metal shredder where their structure is torn apart, and eventually melted down to become “green steel.”
This recycled steel is then used as the basis for new appliances and automobiles. However, over a quarter-ton of non-metal material from each car (seats, bumpers, dashboards, etc.) is not recyclable. These materials simply become highly toxic garbage, far too often containing dangerous levels of lead, PCB’s and zinc.
Smith goes on to write, “According to a 1997 Ford Motor Company report, each shredded automobile produces 500 to 800 pounds of unrecyclable waste. That means the nearly 700,000 additional cars recycled as a result of Cash for Clunkers produced as much as 276,000 tons of toxic garbage.” In addition to this form of waste, automobile recycling plants have a track record for producing toxic tailings and dangerous emissions.
Experts are now saying that the best answer for both the economy and the environment is to maintain your current automobile. Over a period of four years, the Car Care Council says one person can save $10,000 by maintaining a car instead of buying a new one. The Car Care Council says that by scheduling frequent tune-ups and having the oil filter changed every 3,000-6,000 miles, car owners can save money and help preserve the environment.
As much as it claims to help the environment, the Cash for Clunkers program has done more to help the auto scrap industry. By supplying them with 700,000 extra cars to destroy, Cash for Clunkers has fueled an industry that takes useable machines and turns them into toxic waste.
As Stewart Gosswein, used parts spokesperson, puts it: “The bottom line is that [Cash for Clunkers is] taking perfectly good cars and crushing them for no good reason.”
• Associated Press. “Key Dates for Cash for Clunkers.”
• Car Care Council. “Caring for Your ‘Clunker.’”
• Smith, Matt. “In Environmental Terms, Cash for Clunkers is a Jalopy.”
• Zeller, Shawn. “Keeping Clunkers on the Road, or at Least in the Junkyard.”
• Gosswein, Stewart quotes from Zeller.