Junking Our Clunkers: What Happens to the CARS Trade-Ins?

Junking Our Clunkers: What Happens to the CARS Trade-Ins?

Katherine Bagley
Published: 08/12/2009
Dave7/FlickrCreativeCommons

For cash-strapped Americans wanting to upgrade their vehicles and reduce their environmental footprints, the government’s Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS, aka Cash for Clunkers) initiative seems like a dream come true. Trade in your old car, get $3500 to 4500 worth of credit for a new, more fuel-efficient vehicle, save on gas costs, give a boost to the auto industry AND reduce CO2 emissions. It’s ostensibly a win-win situation. But while the program may be taking gas-guzzling, CO2-emitting cars off the road, where exactly are our clunkers ending up?

CARS administrators estimate that the program’s $3 billion budget will be enough for 750,000 clunker trade-ins. Meaning 750,000 new cars sold off the lot while 750,000 oldies that might otherwise have been resold are shredded and discarded. An estimated 3 to 4.5 million tons of car waste material is already sent to landfills every year and some auto industry reps are worried the program will amplify the problem. “Cash for Clunkers might look good on paper, but in reality it has many unintended, irreversible consequences,” said Aaron Lowe, the vice president of government affairs for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, back in March when CARS was being proposed.

The rules explicitly state that all engines and drive trains (driveshafts, differentials, etc.) – parts that might otherwise be salvaged by mechanics - must be destroyed. Recently posted videos on YouTube show dealers wrecking the components by pouring combinations of water, silica and sand into the vents; when the mixture heats up, it crystallizes and hardens rendering the engine completely useless. Without working engine parts, which can provide an estimated 60 to 80 percent of the value of a dead car, many scrappers will simply send the whole crushed vehicle to the landfill.

That is not to say, however, that none of the clunker material will be recycled and reused. Most cars are stripped of their steel and aluminum before being sent to landfills. According to the CARS website, dealers are encouraged to remove parts of the vehicle (other than engine and driveline parts) that can be resold prior to crushing it. A new partnership between the American Chemistry Council, Argonne National Laboratory, and the US Council for Automotive Research is also working to increase recycling of plastics and fabrics in cars. But in the rush of the Cash for Clunkers phenomenon, who knows how many dealers and scrappers will take the time to strip the disabled vehicles, particularly if they hold little financial value.

There is no doubt that reducing CO2 emissions is a positive thing, but in this situation, is what is good for our atmosphere bad in terms of waste and landfills? What do you think?