Friday, February 5, 2010

why Cash for Clunkers are another ecological failure

in half a year, several tens of thousands of vehicles, many of which were perfectly functional, were taken to the dump! All the tires, rubber seals, plastic-coated electrical wires, upholstery, seatbelts, dashboards, and decorative parts had to be taken off each vehicle; the engine, transmission, brake lines, and drive train had to be drained of their oils (hazardous waste). Then, the vehicle was CRUSHED!

Most of us have seen images of crash tests; modern vehicles are designed to withstand considerable pressure and impact. Crushing these thousands of vehicles required immense amounts of energy - not to mention the energy expended in trucking them to the junk yards.

In terms of transport of material (a Ford Explorer weighs around 4500 lbs), changing one's vehicle for a new one would ordinarily involve one single long-distance transport, that of bringing the new vehicle to the dealership; the older vehicle would be transferred locally to a used dealership or an auctioneer. However, with Cash for Clunkers, the mandatory destruction of all returned vehicles involved an inverse journey for the mass of metal and other products nearly as long as the original supply chain, incurring a huge carbon cost.

Worse is that the large majority of these vehicles had a remaining lifetime of up to 5-10 years in our society; in a less wasteful society (Haiti for instance), they might have served for another 20 years.

My point is that Cash for Clunkers was a huge environmental COST. There is absolutely no way to justify that the energy cost of disposing of the clunkers and replacing them with more fuel-efficient vehicles might yield anything other than a net CARBON DEFICIT. Most consumers reportedly gained less than10mpg in their trade. At 15,000 miles per year, it would take more than the lifetime of the vehicle (10 years) to offset the Carbon cost of producing the vehicle, not to mention that of disposing of the old one. However, we gave the auto industry and new technologies a boost. [On the other hand, I might inquire whether there maybe a correlation between the problems found on Toyota vehicles (February, 2010) and the mad rush to fill orders generated by Cash for Clunkers the previous year. ]

If Cash for Clunkers did anything positive, it was for the economy. The program got inventories moving and it jump started (if only temporarily) the automotive industry, the second largest industrial segment after construction. But its contribution to our nations' carbon footprint remained out of the headlines.

Americans still need to completely rethink our social behavior, especially our consumption habits. Those of us who really want to make a difference in the world must commit to a radical shift in our daily lives. Biking instead of driving helps, but it's not enough. We need to think about the carbon cost of everything that we consume, even of that which we recycle.

Consume less, share what you can, repair when possible - and smile! 
Simple steps to sustainability!

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