Is Cash-for-clunkers green?

The government’s Cash-for-clunkers program has been a hot news topic. This program entices people to purchase new vehicles by providing up to $4,500 for trading in a “clunker.” Other than the national economic stimulus of new automobile purchases, the program promises to improve the average fuel efficiency of the nation’s automotive fleet.


  • The “clunker” cannot be resold, and the engine is destroyed. Dealers add chemical agents that seize the engine, and no part of the drive-train may be resold. Other than some non-drive-train parts that may be reused, raw materials are recycled by shredding and additional processing. A wonderful source of core material for rebuilt parts is lost.
  • The trade-ins accepted for credit are based on MPG. I’d rather see the program target vehicles that are no longer reliable or safe. Maybe that program can be called Cash-for-REAL-clunkers.
  • Improved MPG comes at a high cost. Beyond the high cost for a new automobile, the total energy expended during new construction is surely many times that of the small amount saved by greater fuel efficiency.
  • All tax payers are subsidizing the purchases of a few. Even with a few hundred million tax payers, my share of the program’s few billion dollars is probably worth at least a pizza. Frankly, I’d rather have a pizza than help someone to buy a car they probably don’t really need. With unemployment teasing 10%, is taken on the debt of a new car a good idea?

Recycling is most efficient when the product of recycling is as close in form to the product being recycled. The less processing, the better. Instead of destroying the clunkers, the program would be easily greener if clunkers were repaired and re-purposed.

My first car was a 1982 Chevy Celebrity purchased secondhand in 1991 for $1,500. I drove that car fourteen years, past 309,000 miles, and ultimately I drove it teary-eyed to the salvage yard. Maintaining this old “clunker” saved me much more than $4,500, and sadly few cars in 2009 barely exceed its fuel efficiency. With the exception of my eduction, that old car has been my best investment. No other car has meant as much; no other car has been as affordable.