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

6 responses

  1. Cash for Clunkers would make sense were it not for the fact that the auto industry has made such pathetic advances in boosting fuel efficiencies in recent decades! I’ve read that efficiency has gone up just 3 mpg in the last 80 yrs. Meanwhile, my ’93 Subaru (which i also plan to drive for the rest of its life) got 30 mpg on a road-trip last yr.

  2. Six of the top most common clunkers are different years of the Ford Explorer. The single most common replacement car is the Ford Focus. Average MPG of clunkers turned in is 15.8. Average MPG of new car replacement is 25.4 (from msn money today. That’s nearly 10MPG improvement — well beyond the 6 MPG you cite as minimum trade-off.

    Consider not only how much gas gets burned, but what is the relative pollution coming out the tail pipe. Your old Civic might get good MPG, but the old technology and worn engine results in more pollution per gallon burned.

  3. Although it looks like lawmakers from the auto states have reduced the effectiveness of the fuel consumption portion of the cash for clunkers program, the program could have many other benefits, including cleaner air and fewer injuries.

    A green part of the program that people are missing is the huge reduction in air pollutants — which California and many other urban areas desperately need (note that the Bay Area and other air quality districts have similar programs to get the dirtiest cars off the road). Consider the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for a smog precursor called nitrogen oxide. In 1994, the standard for passenger cars was 0.6 grams per mile. In 2004 the standard was lowered to just 0.07 grams per mile. So a 2009 car will have smog-forming emissions that are 90% lower than the 1994 trade-in. Emission limits on other pollutants were also significantly reduced between 1994 and 2004. Another benefit is that newer cars are safer, as air bag technology and structural design have improved greatly in recent years and they are less likely to have mechanical failures. It’s also possible that newer cars will run closer to the advertised MPG rating than an older car — the parts in old engines fit together less well than they used to, for example. (The EPA standards can be found here:

  4. Yes, there may be some benefits to driving a newer car, but it still doesn’t make sense to me that the folks who made the free choice to drive gas-guzzlers are the only ones rewarded with a safer, less smog producing car.

    My car passes the California smog check test each year and still averages 30 mpg. The tricky part is looking at the full life cycle of producing the new car and the emissions associated with transporting and disposing of the old cars. Honestly, if I had qualified for the rebate, I would have seriously considered upgrading–the safety argument being a good one. But I guess good old LeeLoo will live on.

  5. Very good point. One of the things Green IT and manufacturing emphasizes is being green from cradle-to-grave. I’d like to see more analysis from the government on whether how much carbon footprint is created in shipping the car parts to China and having them recycle the car… versus reusing existing cars in a more green way.

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