It's waste not, want not at super green Subaru plant

Subaru's giant assembly plant here is on track to produce 180,000 cars this year. Yet the automaker pledges that virtually none of the waste generated from its eye-popping output will wind up in a dump.

Copper-laden slag left over from welding is collected and shipped to Spain for recycling. Styrofoam forms encasing delicate engine parts are returned to Japan for the next round of deliveries. Even small protective plastic caps are collected in bins to be melted down to make something else.

All told, Subaru says 99.8% of the plant's refuse is recycled or reused so it doesn't go to a landfill. That includes a small portion, about 5%, that goes to a waste-to-energy plant that burns waste to make steam to heat Indianapolis' downtown.

Subaru is one of a growing number of companies claiming or working toward "zero landfill" status. While success earns environmental bragging rights — Subaru has TV ads about this plant's efforts — reuse and recycling also cuts costs to the tune of millions of dollars a year.

Other companies, from brewer Anheuser-Busch bud to imaging-equipment maker Xerox xrx, say they are going zero-landfill as well.

But it isn't always easy. The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart wmt, which deals with a mountain of boxes, returned products and thousands of stores, is trying for a 25% solid waste reduction this year as part of the waste war declared by CEO Lee Scott three years ago.

Environmentalists and waste watchers say individuals and companies can learn from leading-edge corporate clutter fighters.

The zero-landfill movement is "not as popular as it should be," says Allan Gerlat,editor of the trade publication Waste News. "It's readily approaching waste at an earlier level in the stream. … It's a more efficient way to go about it."

While the trend has caught on in Japan, in the USA, "We're just starting to adopt zero waste," says Gary Liss, a waste consultant based in Loomis, Calif.

Japanese-owned auto companies have a head start. Toyota tm and Honda hmc, among others, long have practiced kaizen, or continuous improvement. Among its tenets is reduction of muda, or waste, a costly drag on production.

Their plants usually have key suppliers nearby who practice just-in-time delivery — daily deliveries of key parts. That means an ample number of otherwise empty trucks that can carry back waste for reuse at no added cost.

Workers are gung-ho greenies

At Subaru, eliminating, recycling or reusing even the tiniest stuff is treated with an almost religious fervor among the 2,842 workers.

"We can talk trash all day," says Denise Coogan, the environmental affairs manager who means shop-floor discards, not basketball-court braggadocio.

Subaru pursues no-landfill status while churning out vehicles: 147,156 Subaru Legacy, Outback and Tribeca models and Camrys for partner Toyota last year.

The Lafayette plant opened in 1989 as a joint venture of Subaru and Isuzu. But it wasn't until 2002, the year before Subaru parent Fuji Heavy Industries became sole owner of the plant, that it got serious about its zero-landfill goal. Plant officials set a five-year deadline and say they met it in 2004, three years ahead of schedule.

After the five-year goal was set, plant managers started by analyzing what they were throwing away. "One of the first things we did was Dumpster dive," Coogan says. They spread all the trash out on the pavement to get a good look.

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