News, Updates and Information

Doing the right thing for your old car

September 24, 2010 by Mark Richardson, Wheels Editor

Another World Car Free Day came and went this past Wednesday, and once again, in Toronto barely anybody noticed. Well, except the angry motorists forced to detour around an empty area near Queen’s Park, sparcely populated by a poorly-managed event.

Once again, we’re reminded that this is not Europe, where they know how to make their point properly and constructively about the need to relieve congested cities.

A much better organized event took place at the same time at Metro Hall, where a mobile crusher was set up by the Retire Your Ride organization. Four older cars were brought in to die very public deaths in front of a small cluster of lunch-breaking office workers, who were fascinated by the flattening destruction of it all, present company included.

The cars were squished in order to publicize the final six months of the program, which offers incentives to owners of older cars to get them off the road, but which ends March 31. The organizers don’t hate cars — far from it. They just hate old cars that spew far more pollutants than they have to. According to their stats, cars that are at least 15 years old belch out an average of 19 times the noxious emissions of cars built since 2004.

Retire Your Ride is a federal government program that will pay you $300 in cash for your 1995-or-older car if you agree to take it to a wrecker’s yard that adheres to a recognized code of responsible environmental recycling. You can also get discounts off things like bicycles and electric bicycles and transit passes, and some manufacturers — GM, Ford, Chrysler and Hyundai — will give generous discounts off new replacement cars.

The program was roundly criticized last year for its meagre incentive. After all, what was $300 compared to the thousands of dollars being offered in other countries, such as Britain, the U.S. and Germany? Where was the real incentive?

Asked about this, Steve Fletcher shakes his head. He’s managing director of the Automotive Recyclers of Canada and he’s just come from an international industry conference in Quebec. According to him, the participants “universally condemned those programs as a boondoggle. In the United States, they paid thousands of dollars each for 690,000 cars, without asking where they would go once they were off the road.

“It was just a stimulus package for the economy to sell more cars. Those governments went into it hot and heavy and it was all over before anybody could even think about it. It’s apples to oranges to compare them with the Canadian program.”

Here in Canada, it seems we’re much more sensible. Retire Your Ride wasn’t about getting the auto industry restarted, and apparently one of every five people who cashed in their clunkers did not replace them. Instead, it wanted to establish a sustainable model that would encourage environmentally responsible recycling.

According to spokesperson Carla Kearns, the program has pulled 96,000 cars off Canadian roads since its inception in February, 2009, which is well within its target of 50,000 a year. Of course, many — probably most — of those cars would have been junked anyway, but the whole point was to ensure that they died a responsible death, properly recycled by qualified wreckers. You don’t need a licence in this country to operate a yard and rip cars to pieces, selling the metal for whatever you can get, but if you want the government to send old vehicles your way, you need to pass and adhere to a code of responsible recycling.

For example, you can’t resell the inefficient old engine. You need to remove the mercury motion switches from the hoods and trunks of cars, instead of leaving the toxic blobs of metal to leach into the landfill with the rest of the vehicle’s plastics and foam and glass. And you need to drain all the old oils and coolant and gas — the average discarded vehicle has about 40 litres of fluid in it, of which up to 95 per cent can be removed.

But this takes extra time, which costs money and cuts into profit. Most wrecked cars are worth a little under $200 in metal alone, says Fletcher, while another $200-to-$300 can be found by reselling things like wheels and catalytic converters.

Margins like that make it tough to have a conscience. Fletcher says it’s not a level playing field between the 350 Canadian recyclers who adhere to the code and the 1,500 or so who haven’t signed on.

“If our members can afford to pay $100 per car because that fits their higher costs structure, and the guy down the street has no such concerns (for the environment) and can pay two or three times that, who are you going to sell your old car to?” he asks.

“The only incentive is for you to understand what is the right thing to do. Without support from government, or from auto makers, we’re fighting a losing economic battle.”

That’s what Retire Your Ride has been trying to correct, and attempting to do in a comparatively inexpensive, sustainable way. But it’s all over in six months and the hope is that those automakers who have signed on to its principles will keep its message going. Maybe others, too. There are still an estimated 2.5 million cars on Canadian roads that are at least 15 years old.

For the sake of all those toxic chemicals leaching into our landfills, let’s hope so. After all, it’s an intelligent and constructive idea, and far more realistic than just trying to bully us into going car free.

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Mark Richardson is the editor of Wheels.