Subaru's Indiana plant makes the Legacy, Outback, Tribeca and Toyota Camry
Subaru’s Indiana plant makes the Legacy, Outback, Tribeca and Toyota Camry. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Jil McIntosh

Photo Gallery:
Subaru’s environmental initiatives

Lafayette, Indiana – Manufacturing is, by its nature, an inherently dirty business; it requires massive amounts of energy and generates huge amounts of waste. And for the longest time, that was the status quo, back in the days when we didn’t give much thought to the environment and our effect upon it.

But things are considerably different now, and even as automakers build cars that get better fuel economy with lower emissions, they are also looking at the processes by which they are built. Whether to save money, meet federal or local standards, or to present an environmentally-friendly face to the community, all auto manufacturers are investing in waste-reduction programs, energy-efficient processes, and innovative technologies to turn unwanted byproducts into cash or energy.

I had the opportunity to see this at a tour of Subaru of Indiana Automotive (SIA) in Lafayette, Indiana. While not unique in its mission to reduce its footprint, it has done so primarily with a focus on waste reduction, reuse and recycling. It has also created a wildlife sanctuary on its property, which it says is the only such designated property at a manufacturing plant in Indiana, and possibly in all of the United States. The plant builds the Subaru Outback, Legacy and Tribeca, as well as the Camry for Toyota.

The facility’s list of “firsts” include the first U.S. auto assembly plant to become smoke-free, in 1994; the first to be ISO 14001 Certified for environmental management systems, in 1998; the first in the U.S. with an on-site solvent recovery and reuse system; and in 2004, the first auto plant in the U.S. to achieve “zero landfill” designation. Currently, 99.8 per cent of all waste is recycled, with the remaining .2 per cent classified as hazardous waste, which is shipped to a separate company for proper disposal. Worldwide, all Subaru plants are zero-landfill, including those in Japan.

“It all starts at the bottom,” said Denise Coogan, Manager of Safety and Environmental Compliance at the plant. “We originally got started by dumpster diving – I’d get into a suit and go into the dumpster – and look at what was being thrown out each day.”

Newly formed body panels will go on to assembly.
Newly formed body panels will go on to assembly. Click image to enlarge

Since the company stamps its body panels on-site from giant rolls of material, steel was the primary waste. That wasn’t a major problem, since it is easily recycled and could generate revenue when sold for that purpose. What wasn’t as simple was the huge amount of packaging material used to protect parts when shipped to the plant by suppliers. About 5,000 components are brought in, some 1,000 of them from Fuji Heavy Industries in Japan, and the rest from U.S. suppliers.

Subaru’s response was to look to the “three Rs” – reduce, reuse and recycle. For the first step, packaging was cut down, such as parts that come in stacked with cardboard and wrapped in film, eliminating an exterior box. Next was reuse, beyond the returnable parts bins that are standard across the industry. It must have been an interesting meeting the first time the idea of returning packaging was presented to management – including the plan to return Styrofoam to Japan.

All of this styrofoam will be returned and reused.
All of this styrofoam will be returned and reused. Click image to enlarge

“We call it ‘shipping air’,” Coogan says. “People think it’s ridiculous to ship that back empty all the way to Japan, but it’s cheaper than recycling it and then buying new. Even with the shipping costs, it saves about $1.5 million each year. Each piece goes back and forth five to seven times.”

As camshafts and crankshafts come out of their protective Styrofoam cases to be built up into engines, workers stack the packaging back into big bins for return. Each bin may not seem like much, but SIA returned 930 tons of Styrofoam to Japan in 2007. Any deemed too damaged from its multiple trips – about five per cent of the total – is destined for a large area at the back of the plant that’s the domain of Allegiant Global.

A separate company operating within SIA’s building, Allegiant is responsible for recycling anything that can’t be returned, except for metal, which SIA handles itself. A self-contained operation, Allegiant pays its own expenses, hires its own employees, and then makes its revenue by selling the waste to recyclers. Coogan said this is an incentive to find a market for it, rather than paying tipping fees to discard it.

Nothing is too small for consideration; on a scale this size, even tightening the joints in the air lines returned considerable savings, as compressing air for tools is the plant’s single largest use of electricity. Welding slag is sent to Spain, where its copper is recovered; pop rivet stems are recycled; pallets that cannot be reused are turned into mulch; substandard auto parts are donated to a company that hires disabled workers to recycle them; and plastic fascias that don’t meet quality control or are part of pilot projects are ground up and reformed into new ones. “We’re down to recycling floor sweepings,” Coogan said.

A rack of fascias that are made on site.
A rack of fascias that are made on site. Click image to enlarge
Fascias that can't be used are ground up and formed into new ones.
Fascias that can’t be used are ground up and formed into new ones. Click image to enlarge

A recovery system in the paint shop separates the pigments and solvents, and anything that can’t be reused is sold to recyclers; stamping oil goes to a company that removes its impurities, with the clean oil reused; and oil absorbent is sent to a company that cleans it, sells the recovered oil, and then returns the absorbent to the factory, which reuses it over and over. Solvent-soaked polyester rags go to a company that turns them into wheel well covers, while light bulbs are chewed up in a huge machine that recovers the mercury and phosphorus – which ultimately goes into military tracer bullets. A reusable container is the first choice anywhere possible; many of the bins have been in continuous use at the plant since 1989.

The efforts continue throughout, where employees use recycling stations – made up of old parts barrels turned into bins – for their soda cans, bottles and newspapers. “You get the odd person who isn’t interested in it, but there’s peer pressure to do this,” Coogan said. The company even measures how much trash it picks up from garbage cans, with the goal of reducing the amount of waste generated per vehicle. In 2000, the amount was 208 kg (459 lbs) per unit; last year, it was 117 kg (259 lbs). Of that, 86 kg (190 lbs) is steel. The total figure even includes bathroom waste.

The system gains efficiency by starting at the bottom, with workers sorting and separating packaging as the parts are used, which eliminates a second step. Some of the machinery runs on biofuel. Cardboard is currently baled and sold to a recycler, but SIA intends to ban it completely from the plant within the next few years in favour of completely reusable shipping bins. The company is even putting up a wind turbine, which will initially be used to provide power to the on-site day care centre, and will look at solar power. “Next year, the cafeteria waste will be composted,” Coogan said. “This is now the most pressing issue, and just about all that’s left.”

Cardboard is now baled and recycled but will eventually be eliminated.
Cardboard is now baled and recycled but will eventually be eliminated. Click image to enlarge

All of this is an ongoing project, and it required a long-term vision. Picking up packaging for return on the engine line required hiring two new employees and putting a forklift into service. It currently saves about $1.3 million per year in packaging on that line alone, but “it took a while to see the benefits,” Coogan said. “Now they’re seeing the savings.”

Of course, Subaru isn’t alone in its extensive environmental efforts; all automakers have plans in place. In Canada’s plants, a wide range of innovative programs are under way. Chrysler’s new paint shop includes energy-efficient ovens, booths and fans, and a sludge dryer with no external heating source; Ford uses a “fumes-to-fuel” system that turns paint shop emissions into useable fuel that will eventually power a fuel cell for electricity; and General Motors has two landfill-free plants and four that recycle more than 90 per cent of waste, along with a wildlife sanctuary at its headquarters. Honda is zero-landfill and uses 100 per cent recycled aluminum for its engine parts, supplied molten from an adjacent supplier to save the energy needed to melt it twice; while Toyota is zero-landfill, has banned Styrofoam, uses only compostable cutlery in its cafeteria, and has reduced its energy use per vehicle by 20 per cent since 2004.

Other manufacturers have studied SIA’s environmental plan, including other automakers, as well as Proctor & Gamble, Lockheed Martin and Frito-Lay. Subaru also works in conjunction with local schools, including the massive Purdue University nearby, with a project called S.T.A.R.S., for Students and Teachers Achieving Recycling Success. Started in 2005, the initiative currently has over 3,600 students participating, including an awards program for student projects. “They come to SIA on Earth Day to give their presentations,” Coogan said. “On the last one, one student said, ‘There are really four Rs, and the last one is responsibility’.”

Connect with