‘Cash for Clunkers’ Hurt the Environment, Analysis Shows

Published February 2, 2013

The 2009 Cash for Clunkers program did more harm than good for the environment, concludes a new analysis published by E Magazine. In addition to harming the environment, Cash for Clunkers drove up automobile prices for American consumers.

White House Touts Success

With the enthusiastic support of the Obama administration, Congress passed the Car Allowance Rebates System (CARS) that offered up to $4,500 for people buying new cars and trading in older models. A total of 690,000 buyers took advantage of the program, which was supposed to jumpstart a sluggish U.S. economy, decrease dependence on foreign oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

Just two years later, the White House and the Department of Transportation called the program a success, citing the large number of consumers qualifying for the rebates. 

Few Emissions Benefits

According to E Magazine, however, shortcomings in the program presented unforeseen environmental and economic harm.

The automobiles replaced by “Cash for Clunkers” represented only 0.2 percent of the total number of cars in the nation. The replacement of so few cars had little impact on total automobile emissions, the magazine reported. 

The liberal Center for American Progress estimated full implementation of the CARS program reduced U.S. oil consumption by 3.8 million barrels per year. However, this equals less than one day of U.S. oil consumption. 

Automobiles Not Recycled

The small decrease in oil consumption and automobile emissions came at the expense of other environmental factors, E Magazine reported.

For example, in order to ensure older cars qualifying for the rebates would not simply be recycled, the CARS program mandated all vehicles traded in had to be shredded, rendering the cars unsalvageable. According to the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA), however, almost 100 percent of any vehicle can be recycled. From engine parts and metal to fluids such as engine oil, transmission fluid, and antifreeze, each typically goes to its own destination to be reused in new cars or in car repair. When the “clunkers” were destroyed and shredded, they produced 500 pounds of unused residue for every ton of recyclable metal.

As a result, the remains of 690,000 “Clunkers” added 345 million pounds of residue to the nation’s landfills.

Multiple Problems

“There were numerous issues with Cash for Clunkers,” said H. Sterling Burnett, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. “For one thing, the program treated all vehicles the same, which took newer cars off the road and left older ones running. The program also had limited appeal, being available only to those who could afford to buy a new car. From an economic standpoint, the program took 690,000 working used cars off the market, making used car prices shoot higher and disenfranchising middle and lower class families who depend on the availability of affordable used vehicles for their transportation.”

“The CARS program was poorly done,” Burnett concluded. “It did little to reduce air pollution and nothing to impact climate change.”

Karen Dove ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Bradenton, Florida.