The Zero-Waste Factory
In just two years, Subaru transformed its automotive assembly plant in Lafayette, Indiana into the first zero-landfill factory in the US. Inside one of the great success stories in sustainability.
By Sharon Guynup, July 13, 2017
Inside a huge Indiana warehouse, three people clad in white Tyvek jumpsuits, tall fireman boots, rubber gloves and safety glasses sifted through trash strewn across the floor. It was about 10,000 pounds of refuse, the contents of a compactor from Subaru of Indiana Automotive, the automaker’s U.S. assembly plant in Lafayette.
This wasn’t the scene of an accident or a crime. It was a dumpster dive by experts at Covanta Environmental Solutions, a sustainable–waste management company, hired to inventory exactly what Subaru threw away — and to keep every bit out of landfill.
This followed a 2002 zero-waste edict from the president of Subaru’s Japanese parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries.
Covanta then helped the automaker adopt the three Rs of environmental sustainability: reduce, reuse and recycle. Reducing the amount of muda (Japanese for waste) was key at the 3.5 million square-foot factory — a plant the size of about 60 football fields that currently assembles some 375,000 cars each year and employs 5,500 people. Subaru’s kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement involves all associates (employees) in the process, offering cash and other rewards for suggestions that improve vehicle quality, safety — or environmental stewardship. As a result, the company has lowered waste generation by 60% since 2000. Production of each vehicle generates about 240 pounds of waste; in 2016, Subaru recycled almost 94 million pounds of material, including 80 million pounds of metal.
A formula for success
To achieve Subaru’s zero-landfill goal, leaders at the Indiana plant examined and attacked every assumption, material and process. By convincing suppliers to ship parts in reusable containers, for example, Styrofoam packaging for some 80 engine parts is now used multiple times.
The plant adopted other efforts onsite. For example, damaged plastic polymer bumpers are ground up and sent back to the molding machine. Cafeteria waste goes to a composter, and employees take the resultant compost home for their gardens. On the assembly line, some items go into a barrel for recycling or return to a supplier.
With advice from Covanta and an Indiana-based waste handler, Heritage Environmental, Subaru located vendors for a litany of items. Recycling cardboard, paper, aluminum cans, pallets and some plastics, like polyethylene and polypropylene, proved simple.
Finding markets for other waste proved more challenging — like used light bulbs, which have become fodder for reflective road striping. Metals found in welding 'slag' from the plant’s body assembly area are separated out and resold.
Of course, there are some items that can’t be reused or recycled, says Dave Schroeder, Covanta’s director of national accounts. They include waste from dashboards, carpet and other parts that are engineered in layers, making them difficult to pull apart. This non-hazardous material — less than 5% of Subaru’s total waste — is incinerated by Covanta to produce energy. The ash is then used in road-resurfacing materials.
Subaru Indiana met its five-year goal within two years — and became the first U.S. auto plant to achieve zero-landfill status. “We have sent nothing to a landfill since May 4, 2004,” says senior executive vice president Tom Easterday. “I like to tell people if they go to Starbucks for a cup of coffee, once they throw away that cup, they’ve put more into a landfill than we have in the last 13 years.”
To help other companies improve how they handle waste, Subaru is happy to share information. More than 500 companies, from pharmaceutical to aerospace and auto manufacturers, have visited the Lafayette plant. “We sometimes joke that we’ve had everything from potato chips to rocket ships visit us — from Frito Lay to Raytheon,” says Easterday. “We’ve also been very open, speaking at conferences, sharing our story in the hope that others will follow our lead.” Some other companies also run their own waste-reduction initiatives (See ‘Zero Waste in Manaus.’).
A lawyer by training, Easterday notes that “putting anything into the land, the air or the water creates a risk.” The company has found ways to be a good environmental steward and reduce risk and cost, he says, while saving $1–2 million a year.
Easterday also frames the issue within a broader context. “I think everyone needs to take a look at modern manufacturing and the opportunity … to be an environmental leader,” he says. “We don’t need the government to tell us to be good environmental stewards — it’s good for business.”
Zero Waste In Manaus
The city of Manaus lies at the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, home to one-tenth of the planet’s known species. And though Manaus and the Amazon face many threats, SC Johnson is not among them.
In 2012, the company decided to change the way it manufactured household cleaning supplies, pest control and other products at its Manaus plant with the goal of not generating any waste. To do so, a dedicated 'Green Team' examined the production chain, streamlined packaging and identified materials that could be reused or recycled in environmentally responsible ways. Then, the company developed protocols to separate recyclable materials, address employee-generated food waste and incinerate excess to generate energy.
In 2014, the Manaus plant became SC Johnson’s eighth worldwide to attain zero-waste status, joining others in Pakistan, the Netherlands, the United States, Poland, Canada and two in China. Overall, the company reached its goal of a 70% manufacturing waste reduction by 2016 — three years early. And it estimates that zero-waste protocols keep some 91 tons of refuse out of Brazilian landfills each year.
This article was created for SC Johnson by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from the magazine’s board of editors.