Cash for Clunkers: If You Want to Be Green, Consider Keeping Your “Clunker”

Honda dealer-page-frog1By Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact

The Federal “cash for clunkers” program has been front-page news this week.  Car dealers are elated, as sales are clearly up as a result of the program. The program is so popular it quickly spent the initial $1 billion that was allotted for rebates.  And by Friday, the Senate might approve an additional $2 billion to keep it going.

The program is being touted as having both economic and environmental benefits.  While it is clear that the program has spurred car sales, it falls short on its green credentials.

Key flaws

Here are four key flaws:

1.  Lack of real green benefits: As reported in the Washington Post, When the Clunker is Greener, if you want to be green, consider keeping your “clunker”. It is what I have chosen to do–drive my sweet, old Honda Civic to its grave.

The Post reports, “First, even when new cars and appliances are more efficient than the ones they replace, the act of replacing them entails environmental costs not accounted for in the stimulus programs. Building a new car, washing machine or refrigerator takes energy and resources: The manufacture of steel, aluminum and plastics are energy-intensive processes, and some of the materials used in durable goods, especially plastics, use non-renewable fossil fuels as feedstocks as well as energy sources. Disposing of old products, a step required by most incentive and rebate programs, also has environmental costs: It takes additional energy to shred and recycle metals; plastic components often cannot be recycled and end up as landfill cover; and the engine fluids, refrigerants and other chemicals essential to operating products end up as hazardous wastes.”

Yet, the issue is not clear cut.

As Pablo explains in a post on Ask Pablo, Should I Cash in My Clunker, “a newer, more efficient car can reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, even when you take into account the emissions from manufacturing the new car. Of course there are exceptions and additional considerations.

“If we assume that your clunker has around 100,000 miles left on it, with good maintenance, your new car would need to be at least 6 miles per gallon better to make up for the emissions from manufacturing. This means that, if your old car gets less than 24 miles per gallon, it makes environmental sense to get a new, 30 mpg vehicle.”

2.  Low bar: While there are some greenhouse gas emission benefits from increasing gas mileage from 18 to 22 MPG, why was the bar set so frustratingly low? My car is over 10 years old and gets 30 MPG.  If folks who made the free choice to purchase gas guzzlers are to be rewarded for buying a new car, shouldn’t it at least get great gas mileage?

3.  No Conversions:  As reported by Matter Network, while the vehicles will be recycled, junking them wastes much of the value of functional vehicles. “It will take a lot of energy to put the metal and other parts back into use, and most of the components will go for naught.”

They report, “Many of the newer models being traded in could have been converted to run on natural gas or ethanol, which could reduce emissions to an even greater degree than a few MPG extra without wasting the vehicles. Shouldn’t any program aimed at boosting the environment and economy also consider conversion companies or component suppliers, who are also hurting these days?”

4.  Additionality:   The Marin Independent reported on a woman who traded her Ford Explorer in for a shiny new Prius. “It really helped ease the pain of a new car,” she commented. It is quiet possible that car owners in the position to purchase a Prius would do so anyway over the next few years, even without the rebate.

Maybe not the greenest program on the block, but less Ford Explorers!

Despite the above arguments for why this isn’t the greenest program around, won’t the world be a better place with less huge Ford Explorers on the road? Yahoo reports that the Ford Explorer is the top vehicle traded in so far, with the Honda Civic  and Toyota Corolla and Prius the top replacements. So much for supporting American car companies!

When it comes down to it, if the clunker program is about giving the economy a lift, shouldn’t those of us with older cars that get great gas mileage be given the rebate as well. I think I am just a bit miffed that folks who were clueless enough to purchase a Ford Explorer are getting an incentive to purchase a new car, when those of us driving efficient Honda Civics are not so lucky.

Deborah Fleischer, founder and president of Green Impact, works with mid-sized companies to launch green initiatives that encourage innovation and grow market share. She brings expertise in sustainability strategy, program development, stakeholder partnerships and written communications. You can follow her occasional tweet at GreenImpact.

Deborah Fleischer is founder and president of Green Impact, a strategic sustainability consulting practice that helps companies walk the green talk. She helps companies design and launch new green strategies and programs, as well as communicate about successes. She is a GRI-certified sustainability reporter and LEED AP with a Master in Environmental Studies from Yale University and over 20-years of direct experience working on sustainability-related challenges in both the public and private sectors. She brings deep expertise in sustainability strategy, stakeholder engagement, program development and written communications.Deborah has helped to design and implement numerous successful cross-sector partnerships and new green initiatives, including the California Environmental Dialogue, Curb Your Carbon and the Institute at the Golden Gate.She has helped create lasting alliances among such organizations as Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy with companies such as Disney, Arco, Bank of America and Passport Resorts.You can follow her occasional tweet @GreenImpact or contact her directly at