It’s one of the nation’s great environmental success stories. While Americans have driven increasingly more total miles, the air has become cleaner.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that between 1970 and 2011, American car travel increased 167%, yet emissions of six common pollutants declined 68%.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Denver, where an infamous “brown cloud” cloaked the city and even the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in the 1970s and 1980s.

While Denver’s air and mountain views are clearer today, reducing air pollution presents a complex challenge, with multiple contributing factors and no simple fixes. 

Enter Colorado’s new-car dealers, who identified a specific way they could be part of the solution. They based their approach on the research of University of Denver Professor Donald Stedman, a national auto-emissions expert who notes that a small percentage of old and poorly maintained vehicles pollute more than all other vehicles combined.

Here’s how Malcolm Gladwell, inspired by Stedman’s research, described the situation in a 2006 New Yorker article:

“Most cars, especially new ones, are extraordinarily clean. A 2004 Subaru in good working order has an exhaust stream that’s just .06% carbon monoxide, which is negligible. But on almost any highway, for whatever reason – age, ill repair, deliberate tampering by the owner – a small number of cars can have carbon-monoxide levels in excess of 10%, which is almost 200 times higher. In Denver, 5% of the vehicles on the road produce 55% of the automobile pollution.”

New vehicles have only become cleaner since Gladwell wrote those words, ranging from the many new alternative fuel options to gasoline-powered cars that create almost no smog-causing tailpipe emissions.

But for these vehicles to sufficiently help clear the air, we must get the old super-polluters off the road.

This realization planted a seed of an idea that grew into the Clear the Air Foundation (ClearTheAirFoundation.org). Founded by the Colorado Automobile Dealers Assn. as a 501(c)3 charitable and educational nonprofit, the foundation accepts donations of old cars, just like other car-donor programs. Contributors are eligible for the same tax benefits.

Many of the other programs simply resell donated cars and put them back on the road. But our foundation commits to crush, shred and recycle every donated vehicle, ensuring it will never pollute again.

In its two years, the foundation has removed 645 high emitters from the road. The vast majority were trade-ins donated by Colorado new-car dealers.

Public officials have taken note of the dealers’ leadership in this area. For example, the Denver-area Regional Air Quality Commission has partnered with the foundation.

“We applaud the commitment of the Colorado Auto Dealers Assn. and the Clear the Air Foundation to improve air quality in our communities,” says Ken Lloyd, the commission’s executive director.

Through their participation in this program, dealers highlight a personal commitment to the environment and to the great strides the industry has made in reducing emissions.

While donations from dealers have far exceeded donations from the public, which faces many programs vying for car donations, the foundation continues to promote itself to consumers, from attention-grabbing displays at the annual Denver Auto Show to an offer to plant a tree (Trees for Trades) for each donated high emitter.

The Colorado Broadcasters Assn., a longtime partner of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Assn., has generously helped jumpstart consumer donations by running promotional ads.

The initiative also is supported by a partnership with the Colorado Auto Recyclers, whose members pay for donated vehicles and convert them into valuable scrap metal and parts. As a result of this partnership, the foundation is expected to be self sustaining, with excess revenues funding scholarships for students entering automotive fields. 

The Colorado Automobile Dealers Assn. also contributed an extra $1 million to the foundation to provide a permanent scholarship endowment for students entering automotive fields, including those learning to become auto technicians.

The Clear the Air Foundation has received national media attention. An environmental website, TreeHugger.com, called it “forward looking.”

What’s not to like? This is another example of how auto industry leaders can be environmental leaders, as well.

Tim Jackson is president and CEO of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Assn. He is at Tim.Jackson@coloradodealers.org. Connect with him on Twitter @TimWJackson.