At Subaru’s giant automotive plant in Lafayette, Ind., there’s one subject that everyone, from assembly-line worker to corporate exec, loves to discuss: garbage. “We’ll talk trash all day,” admitted Denise Coogan, Subaru’s manager of safety and environmental compliance. It’s no wonder that refuse is such a hot topic here. In May of 2004 (an anniversary marked every year with great pride and lots of hoopla), Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Subaru’s only plant in the U.S., became the first automaker in the country to achieve “zero-landfill” status — meaning it sends no waste to a landfill.
That’s less than even the smallest of households. It’s a goal that was reached only with the commitment and support of every member of the staff. In fact, eliminating, recycling and reusing even the smallest bits of would-be garbage are approached with an almost religious fervor among the 3,273 employees.
Subaru has long been environmentally conscious. But it wasn’t until 2002, the year before Subaru parent Fuji Heavy Industries became sole owner of the Lafayette plant, that it began focusing in earnest on a zero-landfill goal. This year, the plant is right on track to produce 230,000 cars, including Outback, Legacy and Tribeca vehicles and even some Toyota Camrys. Of all the garbage produced in the process, 99.9% is recycled or reused. The other 0.1% is sent for incineration.
But the company’s greening goes even further: The 832-acre plant site is a designated wildlife habitat, dotted with ponds, walking trails and thick woods, and populated by wildlife, including beavers, deer and coyotes. There’s even a blue heron sanctuary inside the facility’s test track, where bald eagles regularly stop by for a visit, not far from their nesting area at the nearby Wabash River. It’s as much a biosphere reserve as an automotive plant.
“We pushed for zero-landfill because we knew it was the right thing to do for the environment,” explained Tom Easterday, Subaru of Indiana Automotive’s senior vice president. There’s a robust automotive scrapping and recycling industry in the United States, he said, but in 2004 no one had figured out how to deal with the waste created at the beginning of the vehicle’s life cycle. The company needed to find a way, in Easterday’s words, “to eliminate things being put in the ground, air or water that could cause risk to the environment.”
Enlisting help from employees early on, “we started dumpster diving,” Easterday said. Plant managers spread out a bunch of the plant’s trash to get a good look at what they were throwing away. Then they started figuring out what could be done with it. They pretty quickly identified a number of items that could be reused or recycled: The brass lug nuts used to hold wheels in place during shipping were being tossed in the garbage — to the tune of 33,000 pounds of brass per year. They are now reused until they’re no longer serviceable, then they’re recycled. Bottle caps of all sorts, once considered trash, are now reused (last year 567,700 were sent back to suppliers). Solvents used in the painting process are cleaned and recovered through the plant’s on-site recovery system, and the paint shop then reuses them. Even paint sludge gets put to use: It’s dried and mixed with plastic compounds, then transformed into useful things such as parking-spot barriers.
Though Subaru of Indiana initially spent millions on its recycling programs, the results have saved the company about $2.5 million per year. So why don’t many more companies hop on the environmental bandwagon? “People still think that it costs too much money to be environmentally friendly,” said Coogan, a self-described “closet tree-hugger” from way back. “That’s an antiquated idea. Waste is money: wasted time, wasted material. The first years cost us financially, but after you get over that hump, you see the [monetary gains] take off exponentially. It takes patience and an upper management that’s committed to doing this.”
“We’re hoping eventually to turn the rust belt to the green belt,” said Easterday.