A Groovy Trip to Subaru’s Zero Landfill Assembly Plant

A Groovy Trip to Subaru’s Zero Landfill Assembly Plant

ByGroovy Green Feb 16, 2007

What do the Toyota Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Ford Escape all have in common? The production of these three vehicles produces millions of pounds of landfill waste each year. These three specific models are no exception. Automotive manufacturing, like any other industrial process generates lots of waste. But that’s just the way it is, par for the course, nothing anybody can do about it right? Wrong.

Several members of the Groovy Green team recently visited Subaru’s automotive manufacturing plant in Lafayette, Indiana. For nearly three years now this plant has produce zero landfill waste. That’s right, 100% of the by products produced from fabricating Subaru vehicles in Lafayette are reclaimed. How has Subaru been able to achieve such a dramatic accomplishment while other car manufactures are still taking trips to the landfill? At its core their strategy is simple and straightforward; Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. With those words as a mantra and with a willingness to challenge the notion that building cars is inevitably a wasteful process, Subaru has become a great example of what a company can realize if it believes in doing the right thing.

Located on a beautiful tract of land just NW of Indianapolis the 832 acres of the Subaru campus was designated in 2002 as a National Wildlife Federation Wildlife Habitat that’s home to deer, coyotes, bald eagles, beavers, and Canada geese. Tom Easterday, Senior Vice President, Subaru of Indiana (SIA) proudly talks about the company’s commitment to building cars in a more environmentally friendly way. Subaru’s mantra is: “Eliminate environmental risks of our operations.” What’s striking though is that when he talks about the accomplishments of Subaru from being the first ISO 14001 certified auto assembly plant in 1998 to the first assembly plant to reach Zero Landfill in 2004 is that he gives most of the credit to the floor level employees, or associates, as they’re called. It appears much of the greening of Subaru has been because of this “bottom-up” initiative – where the drive to reduce environmental impacts permeates all levels of the corporation. A wholly owned subsidiary of Fuji Heavy Industries, it was obvious as we toured the facility that the Japanese and American cultures working side by side at Subaru have created a special atmosphere. Kaizen! is the term that best describes it. Kaizen means “continual improvement” and that’s exactly how Subaru has been able to change its practices. When employees noticed that brass lug nuts used to temporarily hold the wheels on the cars in transport were being recycled after only one use, they approached management and started a program where by these brass lug nuts are returned to the vendor, and used repeatedly until their end of their useful life. Another initiative reuses the Styrofoam containers and packing material that protect delicate parts traveling from Japan. The containers are shipped back in empty cargo containers for reuse no less than five times. These two initiatives save 33,000 pounds of virgin brass, and 34 million pounds of packaging material.

Listening to the employees at all levels describe their involvement and pride in the company’s efforts to become more environmentally responsible puts a human face on the hard work that’s gone into the changes at Subaru. It was a tour of the plant though that really displayed where the rubber meets the road, if you’ll pardon the automotive cliché.

What we got wasn’t a catwalk tour from above but an actual trip through the plant at ground level. And while there was much of the machinery you might expect to see at an auto plant, Subaru’s efforts at Reusing and Recycling were evident. There were bins at each workstation for items to be stored for reuse or recycling. And, participation in environmental initiatives is now part of the yearly review for all employees. Remember when we say Subaru doesn’t take anything to the landfill, we don’t mean they only sneak in a little from time to time. Everything goes on to other uses. When asked about food waste from the onsite cafeteria, a Subaru spokeswoman was ready, “We send all our food waste to a plant that uses it generate electricity.” Not even leftover food gets trucked to the dump.

Some of the systems in place to make zero landfill waste are simple and seem to have cost little cash in the way of implementation. Others, like the solvent recovery program, or the sludge reuse program in the paint department have required substantial capital investment. Here Subaru has put its money where its mouth is. It seems Subaru has been willing to spend money to make the transition to a company that walks the walk. Asked about the financial costs and benefits related to going green Subaru’s green guru Denise Coogan, Manager of Safety & Environmental Compliance points out that Subaru is no fiscal dummy. “We expect even the more capital intense recycling efforts to pay for themselves in seven years.” All in all, Subaru’s efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle are saving the company money. That’s right, not only is it evident that Subaru employees are proud to be doing the right thing because it’s the right thing do, they’re also saving money by doing it. So why aren’t other auto manufactures making cars with out filling up our landfills while wasting resources and energy? That’s good question. It’s obviously possible and if troubled car companies struggling to find ways to cut costs they need look no further than Lafayette Indiana.

We were impressed by Subaru’s environmental efforts. We were puzzled by the fact that after almost three years of zero landfill efforts, they’re just now reaching out with their message. Better late than never though and we’re happy to share the news about their accomplishments. True, Subaru doesn’t make any hybrid vehicles. However, they are pursuing a 50 state emissions strategy, where their vehicles sold in each state will meet California and New York’s stringent standards. Also Subaru will be providing PZEV (Partial Zero-Emissions Vehicle) Subaru Outback Wagons to Interface, Inc. to allow them to reach 100% Smartway certification by the EPA.

When making your decision about what sort of vehicle you plan to purchase next it seems important to include other factors like reliability, safety and quality design. We’d like to add another to your list: Environmentally Responsibly Manufacturing. How much landfill waste will the production of your next car have created before you even drive it off the lot? If you select a Subaru than you can safely say none.