Green Eyes On: A Visit to a Zero Landfill Subaru Plant


Photo via Subaru.
Guest blogger Sara Snow is a green lifestyle expert and board member for Discovery's 24/7 future-forward network Planet Green.

There is a Subaru plant along a stretch of I-65 that you can't miss if you happen to find yourself about an hour north of Indianapolis, traveling toward Chicago. It's a 2.9 million square foot facility (with 3.4 million usable square feet including a second floor) that covers over 70 football fields. It's big, but I can't say that this particular plant looks all that different than any other from the outside.

But get inside (they offer a 90 minute tour) and you'll learn that not only was it the first auto assembly plant in the U.S. to achieve zero-landfill status, but they took that to heart and have gone a lot further.

I learned a great deal as my husband and I toured through the facility under the leadership of their master guide, Tom Elgin, but it was when we sat down with the manager of safety and environmental compliance, Denise Coogan that how hard they work to go beyond expectations really became apparent.

Subaru is a Japanese automaker, a country where they're often thinking ahead of us because they simply don't have the space for landfills. It was from the top down that the zero-landfill directive came. So the plant set to work figuring out new uses for their trash in order to achieve zero-landfill status.

Their three biggest waste sources have always been steel (it's a highly valuable recyclable, so there's no problem in getting rid of that), cardboard (also easily recycled), and pallets (which are also recycled). While they found that it was easy enough to find ways to recycle or re-use this type of trash, they wanted to find a way to cut down on the amount of trash they were producing in the first place.

Originally 30% of their waste was paper from the bathrooms and cafeteria. That all went to an incinerator where it was burned and turned into steam energy. And though that met the requirements for a zero-landfill facility, it wasn't good enough for the higher-ups at SIA (Subaru of Indiana Automotive); they wanted to do better. Now they use biodegradable paper products (some made from corn) and have set up two 90 gallon composters behind the plant where the paper products and other food scraps are turned into nutrient dense soil that employs can come and pick up for their own gardens on weekends.

One of the other biggest contributors to their waste stream was all of the shipping materials their suppliers used when shipping various parts in. So SAI started providing their suppliers with big plastic bins that they could fill with parts and ship back. The bins, much like the ones you use to store out of season clothes or old sports equipment in your basement, can be used over and over again, cutting down on the need for disposable shipping boxes.

They found that their single largest energy expenditure came in the form of the 4 air compressors used around the facility. Though the air itself can't be recycled per-se, it can be used more efficiently. Through a series of checks and balances they were able to cut down to 2 air compressors, which cut their energy costs literally in half.

They even made changes to the paint application process. They use a water-born paint now, which is much less toxic than the old type. And their application process has an 85% efficiency, up 30% from the old application method. A company just east of Chicago reclaims the paint runoff.

At SAI, their belief is that waste is just a raw material with a next use that hasn't yet been discovered. Discover that use, and it's no longer waste.

The same was the case for the additional land where the plant resides. Wasted land? Definitely not.

The plant sits on 836 acres but the manufacturing facility only uses about 500 of those acres. The remaining 300+ acres have been turned into dedicated wildlife zones. In fact, there's a pond, right in the middle of the test track, that serves as a blue heron sanctuary and a bald eagle migration zone. Pretty remarkable.

Today, May 4th, marks the 6-year anniversary of SAI's zero landfill status. Congrats to them! I'm proud to be a Subaru owner myself.

More on Subaru:
Subaru's Green Manufacturing Plant
Subaru Wants Wind Power for Your Plug In Car
Subaru Joins Electric Car Race with R1e

Tags: Recycling | Transportation | Zero Waste