Buses Head for the Border: Sending School Buses to Developing Countries Isn't the Best Form of Reuse

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You'd never recognize them. Every year thousands of "retired" American school buses turn up in developing countries, but aside from the trademark shape and flashing lights, these "chicken buses" show few signs of their former lives as sturdy movers of students. In Guatemala, for example, the new owners transform each standard yellow school bus from stodgy schoolmarm to pop diva with elaborate multicolored hot-rod-like paint jobs and plenty of chrome. Women's names such as Carmencita, Esmeralda or Norma replace, for example, "Allegheny County Schools" on the buses' sides. The core of the country's transit system, they roar along the highway carrying people, produce and livestock.

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At first glance, it seems like an environmental victory to squeeze the maximum life out of such equipment, the automotive equivalent of sending old sweaters to Goodwill. Yet, though the external transformation is dazzling, the internal machinery of these buses remains the same. As heavy black smoke blows from tailpipes---filled not only with global-warming pollution but also soot and other contaminants that cause more immediate health problems--it becomes clear that this form of reuse and recycling has a dark side.

Old school buses cause a problem long before they leave the U.S., because they burn diesel fuel and often produce greater harmful emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that pre-1990 buses may emit up to six times more pollution than newer models. The exhaust contains nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter. "It has been associated with asthma, bronchial problems, cancer and heart damage," says Patricia Monahan, director for clean vehicles at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel engines contribute to smog formation and also react with other air pollutants to increase the level of particulates in the air.

The trade in used machinery isn't limited to school buses. Everything from used cars to old coal-fired power plants are sold to developing countries. Some see this practice as dumping old technology the same way countries have paid to dump their garbage and hazardous waste in poor countries, says Fanta Kamakate, senior scientist at the International Council on Clean Transportation. "Yet, theresa need for mobility developing countries;' she says. The pollution problem must be balanced with the need for transportation, a classic case of economics versus the environment. For example, a 10-year-old bus with about 150,000 miles on it sells for $2,500 to $5,000; a new, less-polluting bus would cost at least $70,000.

A generation ago, economists and scientists imagined that developing nations would avoid this dilemma. Developing countries, they predicted, would invest in cutting-edge technology and then use that climate-friendly technology to leapfrog over wealthy nations' castoffs, the same way cell phones have helped them bypass the telecommunications infrastructure. But unlike cell phones, new buses are very expensive and old ones last a long time, so the transition can take a generation or more.

The good news is that buses with cleaner engines are in the pipeline and when they eventually arrive in developing countries, it will make a dramatic difference. …