Cash for Clunkers: What Will They Do with all Those Old Cars?

old carTwo years ago when we bought our Prius, my then second grader had an idea. He thought that everyone should have to give up their old cars and buy a hybrid. That, he believed, would solve the global warming problem that he was so worried about. Someone in Washington has stolen my son’s idea.

The New York Times reported last week that President Obama embraces “cash for clunkers” a government sponsored incentive program that would offer Americans cash for trading in their old, inefficient vehicles for new fuel efficient cars. The program would help both the environment and the ailing auto industry.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the reasons that we bought our Prius was because my husband’s company was offering a $5000 bonus to anyone who bought a vehicle that got 35 miles a gallon or better at the time. There was also a tax rebate – I believe it was $1800, don’t quote me on that figure, but we didn’t know about that when we made the decision.

The cash incentive went a long way in helping us to make the decision to trade in our Jeep Grand Cherokee for a Prius. The things is, we knew that when we traded in that Jeep, we might have been doing something to reduce our day to day personal impact on the environment, but the Jeep would still be out there. Someone would buy it, and it would keep on getting very low gas mileage.

This is what we needed to explain to our 7-year-old. Although his idea of everyone getting rid of their cars seemed like a good idea, in reality it would cause a lot of problems. We asked him, “If tomorrow everyone woke up with a brand new hybrid gift wrapped in their drive-way, what would they do with their old cars?”

He’s a pretty smart kid and it didn’t take long for him to figure out that gazillions of old cars rusting away, leaking motor oil into the soil was just about as big of a problem as their inefficiency when being used.

So my question to those who are proposing what has been dubbed the “cash for clunkers” bill is, “Are you as smart as my 7-year-old?”

According to MSNBC, Senator Susan Collins said that taking gas guzzlers off the road

would reduce our dependence on foreign oil, decrease greenhouse gas emissions and stimulate the economy.

So it seems as if the cars being turned in would be trashed, not reused. The bill being proposed in Congress estimates that up to one million vehicles will be taken off the road with a savings of up to “80,000 barrels of motor fuel a day by the end of the fourth year.”

According to the bill the cars must still be in driving condition to be turned in. So now my question is “What will they do with all those old cars?” One million old cars that still have many usable parts. Where will they go?  Will the cars be stripped? Will their usable parts be reused? Will the metal be recycled? It seems these questions are unanswered in the bill.

There are other questions I have, too.

What’s to keep people from driving more now that it will cost less to drive their cars?

Will people who take public transportation to work start driving their high efficiency vehicles because it’s now much more reasonable to do it financially?

As someone who took advantage of cash incentives to buy a fuel efficient vehicle, it may seem hypocritical for me to ask these questions. But I’m asking them anyway. This program seems much more like a program to give the failing automobile industry even more money than a program intended to help the environment.

If improving the environment is really a major part of “cash for clunkers” then the disposal of the vehicles needs to be outlined in the bill. Without specifics, perfectly good materials that could be stripped from these vehicles will most likely end up in a landfill or worse yet, the cars could end up back on the road – maybe in another country – because the bill isn’t specific about the turned in cars.

Image: Danillo Prates under a creative commons license

  1. Robert NYC

    hey – that’s an absolutely idiotic idea. What if I do not want to drive around in a go-kart powered by a rubber band?

    I am glad you are so concerned with personal liberty here in the US of A.


  2. Bobby B.

    Maybe instead of paying cash to get “clunkers” off the road we should be paying cash to restore some of them to “like new” condition. If high mileage is the answer to the problem, the riddle was solved nearly thirty years ago. I had an 1983 Datsun/Nissan Pulsar that averaged 40 mpg city / 45 mgp highway. It still ranks as my personal favorite among the cars (not trucks) that I have owned. However, it was far from topping the high mileage lists of that era. I urge you to follow these links:





    Maybe you should be asking yourself why high mileage cars fell out of vogue in the first place. It seems that fuel sipping vehicles only sell during hard economic times. Do we really want a tougher economy? Whether or not you bought your Prius out of desire or guilt is of no consequence to me. What bothers me is that so many people now feel that they have a right to dictate to others what they are allowed to drive, eat, drink, smoke, etc. and so on. What’s happening to liberty?

    BTW, if Obama was justified in demanding that GM’s Rick Wagoner step down, why not ask the same of Ron Gettelfinger?

  3. Birch

    No doubt that any “Cash for Clunkers” program needs to be carefully planned–something Washington isn’t exactly great at doing. But auto-trade-in programs have done well in Europe and there is a worldwide demand for the scrap metal and other materials that can be recycled from old cars. It just needs to be specified in any government mandate.

  4. Chris P.

    I agree the bill needs to be more thorough with outlining that these cars must be recycled, not scrapped, but fixing the gas mileage is also the same as buying new cars. Instead of taking the old car and recycling it, boosting the need for recycling jobs, instead we are strengthening the auto repair business. It costs more to uphold an old car than to buy a new one. My 6 cylinder Grand Am would need quite a bit of work to attain the 33 mpg highway that (for example) a Ford Focus can attain. Not only that, but you need to count the fact that the cars break in other areas, so why invest money in a breaking car? If you take the good parts and recycle them, not only will you create more jobs that will make up for the loss in car repair but you will also boost auto sales in the US, which will in turn stop the Auto companies’ begging for Federal dollars to hold them up. I’d rather pay taxes to get an incentive for a new car than just pay taxes to watch the companies struggle. Shouldn’t the consumer benefit, not just the companies? I think so.

  5. Stephanie

    I like the idea of the program (and may use it myself since my car is dying), but I agree that it would make more sense from an environmental standpoint to have some purpose or plan for the discarded cars.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  6. Robin Shreeves

    Mostly well thought out comments here.

    Robert – no one’s personal liberties are at stake here – no one is being forced to trade in their car

    Bobby – I think you have a good point with the fact that existing cars could be made to have better gas mileage (add that to the fact that you actually liked one of my posts a few weeks ago, and I’m in danger of having my “you green” card taken away, dontcha think?) If a car is on its last legs, getting rid of it not a bad idea, but cars in good condition can certainly be “retrofitted”

    Birch – specifics are key here, and it would be good if Congress learned quickly from the mistakes made with past bailout money

    Chris P – I think it can be a mixture of both. As I said above – there are some cars that are ready for recycling; others are still in good enough condition to be tweaked if possible

    Stephanie- yes, a plan would be good

  7. Powerball Winner

    As fas as i could think this is not going to force anyone to buy a new car. if you want to continue rolling in a gas guzzler, you are free to do it. if you want to change to new model and have a rebate, you could do that.

  8. Bobby B.

    Robin – Critiquing a post has very little to do with my personal likes or dislikes about its topic or its author. Usually, my opposition to most of what “you greens” have to say is based upon ideological, political, economic, scientific, and/or religious differences. Ideologically, I am a staunch conservative whereas most greens are far-left liberals; many even hold to socialistic or communistic doctrines. Politically, I am a registered republican who has been considering a move to a party with beliefs even farther to the right, because today’s RINO’s have embraced left-of-center doctrines. I also believe that the Democratic Party’s drive towards another Great Society or New Deal is a misdirection ploy to transfer even greater power to D.C. Economically, I think that my money is mine (and the Lord’s) and your money is yours, and believe that it is wrong to levee punitive taxes on those who create and work jobs in the private sector to support others who are just as capable and programs that are foolhardy. Scientifically, the engineer in me cannot help but pick apart green “technology” that ignores the laws of nature, chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, etc. Religiously, I am a Bible believing Christian, which contrary to the beliefs of anti-Christians produces free societies instead of enslaved tyrannies. Granted that’s a short list and like all personalities there is a bit more complexity involved. Nonetheless, I hope that even when I am taking a contrary view to whatever “you greens” are saying that you do not take it personally or view it as impolite.

    To close, there are a few problems with cash for clunkers and/or cash for retrofitting new cars to work like old ones. First, the cash must come from the private sector in the form of punitive taxation, be laundered by the government, and distributed unevenly in the public sector. Second, many will contend that retrofitting a later model car to get 1983 mileage would mean sacrificing safety, performance, and emissions improvements. Third, the price of scrap metals is currently very low, which removes the profit incentive from the recyclable side of the plan. BTW, do you ever wonder why the largest buyers of our scrap metals are countries that do not like us? What are they building with all that iron? Fourth, there are other considerations but I will digress to give others their say.

    To really close, I doubt your “green card” is at risk.

  9. Robin Shreeves

    Bobby – my boys and I rented a movie once – a retelling of The Tortoise and the Hare which was really bad, but there was one part that made me laugh. The kids of the Tortoise and Hare were being forced to race by their fathers, but learned to cooperate with each other. One wrote a note to the other which could have been interpreted two ways and caused much confusion. Once the confusion was sorted out, one of them said , “Man, how is it possible to communicate without emoticons.” Long story to say, I was kidding about the “you greens” card.

    I don’t take your comments personally because you disagree with my ideas. You don’t call me names or attack me personally so all is cool. Keep it comin’.

  10. Lori

    Thanks for a GREAT post. I, too, hope the government is as smart as your seven year old. My husband, a manufacturing engineer, points out that 90+% of an automobile is recyclable. He drives a 1992 Nissan that STILL gets 25 – 34 MPG. Given this level of MPG, it is MUCH more green to keep driving this car kept in good condition than to consume the oil needed to manufacture a NEW vehicle. (And, cheaper since he can do 90% of the maitenance and repairs.) In fact, the car gets BETTER gas mileage than my 07 Suburu Forester(20-29 MPG). {For info on how to figure out which is greener – keep it or buy a new High MPG auto see this post: http://www.triplepundit.com/pages/this-week-david.php}

    My 94 Nissan Sentra 2-door got 30-39MPG. When we were forced to replace it after it was totaled out by a truck on ice (and we had to have a family sized car) we were horrified to find that despite 13 years of technology, we COULD NOT replace the MPG unless we either (a) sacrificed the size vehicle we needed or b) bought a hybrid that was LARGER than we needed (Hylander Hybrid or Ford Escape). In other words, a fuel-effficient family-sized model did not exist. Since we could not afford the $26K for a Prius or Civic Hybrid, the $30-$40K for an Escape or oversized Hylander was out of the question.
    I drove my Sentra with a headlight chicken-wired in it for 6 months trying to find a fuel-efficient small SUV/wagon that we could take camping, would haul my recycling, and would transport my products for my business to shows and events. I bought the Subaru because it was the best I could do. I love the car. I HATE the MPG comma lack thereof.

    The reality is that millions of people would be driving fuel efficient vehicles RIGHT NOW if we had simply legislated MPG rewquirements that benefit not only the environment but the pocket books of average Americans and kept our auto industry economically viable. I would be one of them.

    I know we need to suppport US industries. My husband’s job depends on it. However, we need to require BY LAW that US industries produce the most environmentally and socially just product possible, not as some facist plot as some will insist, but because it is the right thing to do morally and economically. Right now IF we went out to replace my husband’s Nissan, we’d NOT buy a US made car because they don’t make a high MPG, dependable car. In fact, we’d probably buy used because we CANNONT afford two car payments AND it would be greener.

    So the whole cash for clunkers program is only evionmentally viable IF it is used only to replace cars that get LESS than a certain MPG AND if the car being replaced is COMPLETELY recycled AND if we have a US auto industry that is CURRENTLY producing a VIABLE replacement product. Otherwise, it is just more consumption.

  11. nadine sellers

    just remember what happened to cassettes and eight tracks…
    now imagine your neighbor’s plight, low income, it’s salvation transportation time again, donate, donate.

    if feel good motive do not reach you, please ensure the passage of a bill which would return your rebated vehicle to some form of useful purpose, be it a mechanic’s salary, a recycler’s income or cars into plowshares programs for felon’s re-introduction into society. some good would eventually come out of it.

    the speed of the transportation industry will ultimately depend on the size of your willing wallet.
    but do ask for a CD or MP3 player in your new vehicle if you get one, at least.

  12. Robin Shreeves

    Lori – I find it amazing, too, the lack of options out there when there are so many options!

    Nadine – I’m not sure if I understand your p.o.v. Do want the clunkers back out on the road? If that were to happen, it would be an failure environmentally and a fraud politically. The whole point is to get them off the road. If I misunderstand you, please let me know.

  13. nadine sellers

    Ah, the french abstract mind traps me again, please allow me to clarify my pov.

    Yes indeed i do propose to make absolute full use of every vehicle in the market at present: for these reasons.
    economy: many are not financially able to purchase a new car.
    ecology: for each defunct vehicle, there is the fact of new product manufacture/material/transport/marketing/financing.

    Looking at the social and environmental picture, i see cars becoming smarter and people becoming poorer. As the more affluent purchase greener products, older, less efficient ones will naturally phase out to their full-use ending and enrich the recycling material pool.

    Within a few years, there will be “used” models of highly efficient transportation which will be made more affordable by market forces; just as the electronics industry has phased out previous technologies.

    Yes, the recycling of electronics is barely catching up with the over-production, but it is stabilizing since the recession and green impetus. Keep prodding the industry, they’ll eventually behave.

    Should the legal focus be put upon the manufacturers rather than the consumers? ie: NO bail outs for inefficient vehicles.

    hoping to have made the socio-economic/ecologic link clearer, nadine

  14. Bobby B.

    Lori – If you will check the links that I provided in my earlier posts, you will learn that your cars from the early 90’s (and 80’s) did not actually get the gas mileage that you claim. The EPA revised the calculations to force the numbers downward in the mid-90’s. Now, I know that when you divide miles driven by the gallons spent you get the MPG that you claim; so did I back in the day. However, the EPA now says that those calculations were erroneous. Being an engineer, I thought that straight-line division was a pretty basic operation. However, I have to assume that the EPA employs people who are more talented at elementary mathematics than the rest of us. It is also worth noting that the “13 years of technology” that you referenced was selectively applied. Today’s vehicles provide more crash survivability and fewer emissions, which does not necessarily correspond to greater MPG.

  15. Oldcarlover

    The cash for old car’s legislation is completely misguided. I have run into that locally where an old gent traded in his 1985 Chrysler in !!MINT!! condition and it wasn’t alowed back on the road because of a scrapage program! I would have gladly drivin that car for years to come. I can not stand to see old cars scaraped PERIOD! Especialy when they are in chery condition.

    Canifornia had this back in the early 90’s some of the cars they crushed….well let’s just say us cars guys would have had heart attacks watching the rust free rare cars getting crushed for BS reasons!

    Down with scrapage programs all across the world!

    They serve no usefull purpose and take far too many great cars out of the hands of people that could resurect and apreciate them.

  16. AJ

    It sounds like a good idea. Im sure there are somethings that are hidden in the law to benefit a few people of intrest. Im sure some of the cars are being crushed. I can see some cars being stripped of good parts and being reused because not everyone supports the program and will need parts for the old cars, trucks. ect. They will still make aftermarket parts anyhow. I dont support the program, the cars that are being made today are nothing more than plastic, and cheap metal. Most new cars start having problems around 30,000 miles or so. We used to have a 1997 Dodge Stratus and it didnt even make it to 70,000 miles, the tranny ended up giving out the the suspension gave out as well. All regular maintance was done. So how long will the new hybids last? Cars with Batteries???? How will they dispose of the batteries? I know for a fact that cars today are made very cheap, and not made like they used to. SO in theory I believe that we will be have more new cars of today end up clunkers alot faster than the older generation of veichels. I like my old car, it gets good gas mileage, its easy to work on and to maintain at little cost. So newer is not always better. Their is technology out their that can make a V8 engine get 40+MPG, but we will never see it. Todays cars have no horse power as well. I say clunk the program. Its all a scam to get money. All the money we pay for the new cars, we end up throwing it away 70,000 miles later and buying a new one. So you end up paying more for cars and paying more for the repairs and car insurance. What a waste.

  17. Kathy Dahl

    I have yet to get an answer on what they are doing with the old cars that are taken in for Cash for Clunkers. Are they destroying them? If so, where is the money going that is made destroying the cars for scrap metal? My guess is lining pockets and NOT helping the enviroment, which is the whole idea of this program. Can anyone honestly answer my question? KD

  18. les

    Where is the money going from these salvaged cars? Is the goverment recouping some of the money that is being so easily given away at the expense of all of us- especially us “rich” folk who somehow owe the world everything for working harder than most, saving better and investing well.

  19. joey t

    does anyone remember when cars got 50 mpg? if people want to get a fuel efficient car go buy a 1995 geo metro “clunker” not a suv or a hybrid that gets 25 mpgs. i hear obama drives a chrysler 300 whats with that hes head of gm now your all a bunch of suckers goin out buyin a “fuel efficient car it will be a clunker in 1 year . thats just money in their pockets not yours

  20. Donna W

    I thought that all cars traded in under the “Cash for Clunkers” program had to be scrapped. I heard on the news today about a sports star was working with Nissan to “clean up” some of these cars and give them to needy people. I thought the point was to get these gas guzzlers off the road!

  21. Tim Kelley

    Here I set with a car that has no heat; cuts out in the middle of the road while my president sends good cars to the scrap heat. But yet money comes out of my tax dollars to give the richer a chance to get a new car. They changed their story from Global warming to climate change because all their facts are not aligning. If America enters a revolution against this type of government intervention; I’m signing up.

    Tim Kelley(Georgia)

  22. Joe

    If you want to save the environment, you don’t get rid of the perfectly good car that has already been made for a brand new car with only relatively moderate increase in effective emission. The first thing you have to remember is that the “emission quotient” if you will, is effectively calculated by weight over pound. The Prius (and comparable hybrids) weighs as much as a truck. Of course it is going to have a good emission rating. Secondly, when you buy a new hybrid, you take the carbon and material cost of making a new vehicle, whereas buying a used car of comparable emission rating, you don’t take on the production cost. Instead of buying a car with a little “Hybrid” or green leaf badge, you should buy one that has “Pre-Owned” marked on the glass. All that aside, I do find hybrids/electric absolutely necessary to the development of the technology. Plug-in hybrids, pure electric, this is the future. But until we switch from coal power to nuclear power (one of the cleanest power sources), even these remain carbon positive. Any thoughts? Comments? This is not meant to be offensive or intrusive, this is just based off of research I have seen. I don’t think that we shouldn’t make or buy hybrid/electric vehicles, I just want people to realize that the environmental impact of these types of vehicles can be very misleading.

  23. neerav

    screw this im a car guy and hybrids are slow and lame performance cars till the day i die, i will drive big v8’s v12’s and v’10s i would rather spend more money for gas doing something i love, all hybrids can burn in hell!!!

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