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An Auto Factory as "Green" as Its Cars

Subaru's "Zero Landfill Waste" Auto Plant Raises the Bar

When you think of a "green" car company, do you automatically think of one that makes low-emission cars? That's all well and good, but what about the tremendous environmental impact of the vehicle production process? An auto factory isn't something that barrels into your environmental consciousness like a 3-ton SUV. But it's time we looked beyond the cars in the showrooms to how those cars are made.

When you do think of a car factory, you probably envision something akin to the smoke-spewing industrial plants of Charles Dickens' London. But there's one car factory that's as far removed from that bleak stereotype as a Hummer is from a Greenpeace convention's parking lot — specifically, Subaru's sole U.S. plant, which goes by the name of Subaru of Indiana Automotive (SIA). Built in 1989, SIA has steadfastly made improvements in its production methods that cut down and (in 2004) eliminated the generation of landfill waste entirely. Yes, this auto factory, which makes anywhere from 110,000 to more than 200,000 vehicles a year, adds absolutely nothing to our nation's rapidly filling landfills.

That "nothing" is really something, particularly since SIA produces more than half of the Subaru Legacy, Outback and Tribeca vehicles for the U.S. market. (Curiously, Toyota Camrys are also made here, thanks to an agreement between the two carmakers.) What's more, all but the Tribeca are PZEV-rated vehicles, meaning these cars have very low emissions, too.

Subaru of Indiana Automotive is a great example of nature and industry coexisting peacefully.

Subaru of Indiana Automotive is a great example of nature and industry coexisting peacefully.

Nature Park or Auto Factory?

Drive up to Subaru of Indiana Automotive and you'd swear you were entering a nature park. In essence, you would be, as the 832-acre campus is home to a fair number of beavers, deer, coyotes and blue herons. This place is truly green, as lush grass and heavily wooded areas dominate, complementing the various ponds scattered about.

OK, so its pristine, furry creatures dig it and it's actually been declared a natural habitat — the only auto factory in the U.S. to achieve that honor. That's fine, but what about the factory itself? Look beyond the flora and fauna for an up-close-and-personal plant tour, and unless you're the reincarnation of the Grinch, your heart will likely be filled with gladness.

A Gerbil Generates More Waste Than This Place

We cannot overstate this — Subaru of Indiana's plant was the first "zero landfill" auto factory in the U.S. Fully 99 percent of waste from the plant is recycled, and the remaining 1 percent is turned into electricity. Obviously, "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" — the mantra of greenies everywhere — has taken on religious importance here. The first two actions go hand in hand. If you can reuse something, then landfill waste will be reduced, and less will need to be manufactured in the first place.

SIA's solvent recovery system is a great example of this process. After use, paint solvents are broken down into their base elements and reused repeatedly. Other examples are the massive plastic trays used to transport engines, and the thousands of brass lug nuts used to temporarily secure the wheels to the cars. After use, they are sent back to their point of origin for reuse.

Recycling efforts are equally intense. In 2006 alone, more than 11,000 tons of steel (that's more than 22 million pounds) were saved by recycling materials that would normally have been resigned to the scrap heap. Cardboard/paper and polystyrene/other plastics were likewise recycled to the tune of roughly 1,500 and 190 tons, respectively. More than 31,000 mature trees were saved from the chainsaw thanks to recycling nearly 1,000 tons of wood from pallets and the like. And almost 11,000,000 gallons of water were saved thanks to SIA's intelligent use of existing materials.

Though some processes, such as the paint solvent recovery system, cost the company a pretty penny, others, such as reusing polystyrene and plastic packing pieces, cost little. Still, saving money is a side benefit, one not lost on this corporation with a conscience. Granted, the more expensive systems will take time to pay for themselves (in some cases, up to seven years from time of purchase, according to a Subaru executive), though all agree it's money well spent for both environmental and economical reasons.

Employees are just as enthusiastic, and recycle via the "paper," "plastic" and "metal" recycling barrels located throughout the plant and dining areas. Last year, they recycled 15 tons of their soda pop (as they say in Indiana) cans and bottles. These diligent workers go the extra mile, too, as they are encouraged to let the top brass know if they have any ideas to help the cause. It was a plant employee who suggested reusing the brass lug nuts referred to earlier.

Nothing escapes scrutiny, and even lightbulbs and used rags are reincarnated — last year 4 tons and 10 tons of these items were recycled, respectively. Hate the thought of wasting food? So do these folks — normally wasted food from the cafeteria sees another life by going to a plant that uses it to create electricity.

Making Others Green With Envy

The company has also incorporated these processes in Japan as well, so back in its homeland Subaru no longer adds anything to landfills. Furthermore, Subaru is more than willing to share its good ideas, and has done so with other auto manufacturers.

Honda has benefited from Subaru's methods and shares the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" philosophy. The big H's Alabama plant, where they make Odysseys and Pilots, is also a zero-landfill plant. Honda has also placed Energy Star reflective roofing on a number of their buildings. This type of roof reduces surface temperatures, and reduces the amount of air conditioning needed, thus making the building more energy efficient.

Rolls-Royce's Goodwood, England, plant (which opened in 2003) boasts an 8-acre "living roof." Covered with sedum plants, this roof provides insulation from the heat and the cold; of course, as is the case with all green plants, these sedum plants also clean the air by ingesting carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. The Rolls plant also sends waste leather (from the upholstery division) to shoe and clothing makers, and filters run-off water from the roof and parking lots before it enters an on-site lake. Ford's Rouge plant, which makes the F-150 pickup, also employs a living roof and similar water-saving measures.

Toyota has even managed to make a small business out of being green. Toyota Roof Garden, a subsidiary of Toyota Motors, has made a business of selling living roof tiles that it claims are as easy to install as laying down carpet in your home.

In the automotive high-jump event known as environmental safeguarding, Subaru set a world record of sorts by being the first automaker to achieve "zero waste to landfill" status. Indeed, the company set the bar very high, and it's great to see that others have been inspired to start clearing that bar as well.