How California’s CAP program curbs emissions

Oct 1, 2014

It’s early morning and my car is rattling loudly in the parking lot of the Pick-n-Pull auto dismantler in the industrial neighborhood of East Oakland near the Oakland Coliseum.

I’m here at Pick-n-Pull to sell my beat-up 1998 Subaru Outback Legacy to the State of California under the Consumer Assistance Program, or CAP. The program buys cars that don’t pass smog for $1000, or $1500 if the owner is low income. The state wants polluting cars off the road for good and the money is a big incentive for owners to participate in the program. It’s definitely why I’m here today ready to collect my check.

I head to the front office and meet Gregory Steward, Pick-n-Pull’s Regional Manager for the North Bay Region. I follow Steward to the customer service desk and put my name on the waiting list for the CAP program. I’m number two in line this morning for the CAP program and I can’t wait until this car is someone else’s problem.

Since I have some time to kill,  I go check things out around Pick-n-Pull. There are cars everywhere, It’s a giant football field of vehicles in various states of decay. Some cars are missing windows, doors, hoods, seatbelts, even engines. Pick-n-Pull makes most of its money by buying used cars for up to $600 and then scrapping them for parts. To keep costs down, customers have to remove the parts themselves. The lot is bustling already with customers carrying all kinds of tools to scavenge the parts they need. But my car won’t be picked apart like prey.

Instead, Stewart explains, “We crush it and we ship it over to Schnitzer Steel, which is our parent company, and they'll  shred it down and send it off and make it out of rebar.”

Crushed and melted in rebar. That’s the punishment for my car and thousands of others that fail the smog test. It seems a fitting punishment for a car that has cost me $7000, and two engine replacements in the past 4 years. But let me put the brakes on my negativity for just a minute. I imagine that not everyone is as excited as I am to say goodbye to their cars. Isabelle Sanchez is works at the front desk at Pick-n-Pull and sees a lot of customers. I ask her if anyone ever gets emotional letting go of their cars?

“Oh yeah, I have a lot of people crying, it's really sad because a lot of them will have it for years,” she explained. “You know, they'll take pictures, kind of sit in it for a while, you know, we let them, but yeah, the do cry.”

Then there are others like me. “Yes, they basically say good riddance and they leave without looking back," said Sanchez.

That’s right, I’m looking forward -- forward to the time they crush my car like a pancake. I sit in the waiting room until my name is called.

Sanchez calls me to the counter.  I sign on the line and finally I’m free of that piece of junk for a thousand bucks. I ask Sanchez what other people do with their money?  “Usually you hear they’re going to use it towards a new car or just to spend it on the kids, that's usually what I hear. Lot's of family people here.”

A look around the lot

All I can think about at this point is my car being crushed. I want to see it, so Steward takes me on a behind the scenes tour. We walk to a huge car lot busy with activity. Mechanics are preparing cars for the scrap yard, draining oil and gasoline and removing copper wiring and tires -- all of which can be recycled for profit. What’s left of the cars will go on blocks out in the scrap yard. But not my car and others in the CAP program -- their fate is the crusher.

Steward describes how the forklift operator is preparing cars for the crusher. “Now what he is going to do is put it on the back stop and he’s going to crush the sides in. He’s taking the forks right now and going to poke the sides in so when they put it in the crusher is collapses easier.”

I can see my car waiting in line to be crushed. It’s already been fork lifted on top of a stack of cars. But I can’t get close to the machine. Steward says it’s too dangerous. So instead, we watch from a distance as the cars get smashed.

“And see?  He’s crushed one car or is that two?” says Stewart as he points to the forklift at the end of the lot. “He has two cars in the crusher that he just crushed. Now the top is going up. Now he’ll probably put a third car in there and then crush it before he takes those out and puts them on the stack over here.”

I ask Stewart why Pick-n-Pull participates in the state program. “The State is the one that gives the money out, we're just the middle person.” He continues, “But the weight of the car when we ship it out, we get paid for the weight of the car. So that's pretty much our benefit from it. Whatever the going rate is on the scrap price that time, that's what we get from it. But also just helping the environment.”

The program does make an impact. According to its yearly report, the CAP program retired 26,894 vehicles in California in the 2012/2013 fiscal year and is estimated to have eliminated 5,387 tons of emissions from the atmosphere.

The end of the ride

On my way out I run into Robert Spencer, another CAP customer who is waiting for his check from Sacramento. Spencer explains that 2 years ago the check engine light came on in his wife’s car. She had the car for 19 years.

“They wanted $1600 to repair the check engine light so I figure that our repairs would cost way more than its worth doing, so we decided to retire the vehicle this year.”

He describes his car to me with great appreciation. “Well its a green ‘95 Cadillac SLS 32-valve North Star, and it has all the things that Caddies usually have. It runs great, it's the best running car I ever had. It's got power, it gets up and goes.”

Spencer’s name is called. I ask Spencer if he knows what’s going to happen to his car?

“Not exactly, I'm pretty sure they'll scrap it out for parts. Somebody might do the repairs and sell it. You never know what these guys are going to do.”

I tell Spencer what they are going to do: crush it, smash it and melt it down into unrecognizable rebar.

“Oh, that's what their going to do?“, Spencer asks with surprise. “That's a shame, crushing this nice engine. I love the engine. It's got good horsepower, always ran good. Never had any problems with the engine.”

As he hands over the keys to his car, I ask him if he has any last words.

“Good bye Caddie, you served me well. I love you but I got to say goodbye.”

Parting is such sweet sorrow. Well, for some of us.