Junk in the Trunk

Donating your old car to charity may make you feel good, but it doesn't necessarily create a net benefit for the environment.

When old vehicles wear out, many motorists call Habitat for Humanity, one of several charities that raise money by asking for automobile donations. They tell donors this is not only good for the pocketbook, thanks to the tax write-off; it's also good for the environment.

According to the Cars for Homes page on Habitat for Humanity's Web site, "The Steel Recycling Institute reports that every year, the steel industry recycles autos at a rate near or above 100 percent, saving the equivalent of enough energy to power about 18 million households!"

"We call it green steel because it saves so much energy, saves natural resources such as iron ore, and it's the only consumer recyclable that you can use over and over again with without it deteriorating," says Marcia Rundle, director of Cars for Homes.

But while car recycling may be green energywise, the industry is also a huge generator of hazardous waste.

After cars are donated, around 40 percent are sent to an auto recycling operation, such as Schnitzer Steel at the Port of Oakland. Often, "it makes more sense to dismantle a car than to eke out the last 1,000 miles out of it," says Joe Hearn, president of Advance Remarketing Services, which brokers used cars for charities such as Habitat for Humanity.

Once the car is at the yard, workers drain it of its gasoline, oil, and other fluids; remove batteries and other easily separated toxic material; and harvest valuable parts. Next, the carcass is compacted and shredded into cue-ball–sized chunks and passed under high-intensity electromagnets to extract valuable metals. The scrap is shipped around the world to be melted down and reused.

The worthless ground-up leftovers — which can include, for instance, bumper plastic — are disposed of without nearly the care required for toxic garbage such as compact fluorescent light bulbs. In fact, thanks to a special 1988 exemption to California's hazardous waste law, 700,000 tons of this so-called auto fluff is sent every year to normal landfills around the state instead of specialized ones designed to handle hazardous waste.

But much of the toxic material from auto fluff — such as mercury in electronic switches or petroleum derivatives in plastic seats — can dissolve and contaminate a landfill. State regulators now acknowledge this material could threaten the health of workers and possibly even contaminate groundwater supplies.

 
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