Indiana Subaru plant hasn't taken out the trash in 14 years
Indiana Subaru plant hasn't taken out the trash in 14 years
Aug. 01, 2018
LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — While not his official job title, Tom Easterday has become quite the tour guide.
The Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Inc. executive has been known to do as many as a handful a month around the company's Lafayette manufacturing facility. Whether leading top industry officials or a group of young students, he has a favorite opening line.
"I always like to say that if someone stops for a cup of coffee on their way into the plant," Easterday said, "then they have put more trash into the landfill than we have for the entire year."
Actually, that coffee cup would be more than the entire plant — with 5,600 employees producing 350,000 cars annually — has put in a landfill in nearly the last 15 years.
That's right, Subaru's Lafayette facility has been zero landfill since 2004, making it the first auto assembly plant in the United States to reach that milestone.
With waste reduction under their belts, the Indiana Subaru folks are sharing their knowledge with anyone who is interested. But they are not stopping there and have now set their sights on new environmental initiatives to reduce the energy the plant uses and the emissions it releases.
"Looking at the life cycle of a vehicle, everyone was looking at sustainability while the vehicle was on the road and how to reuse parts once it retired," Easterday told IndyStar. "But no one was focusing on the first part of the life cycle, looking at what impact it was having on the environment while being built."
"So we wanted to look into that," the senior executive vice president continued. "Whether reducing waste or now reducing energy, that's our focus."
Subaru's Lafayette facility first began looking to reduce its waste in 2002, according to Denise Coogan, the environmental partnership manager at Subaru of America.
Being a small part of the automotive market at the time and unable to bring a hybrid vehicle to market — which they will finally be releasing in the U.S. this December — the company asked themselves how they could make an environmental impact.
After setting a goal to achieve zero landfill within five years, Subaru of Indiana blasted its target out of the water: The plant sent its last piece of trash to the landfill on May 4, 2004, after less than three years.
In roughly 15 years, the company has reduced the waste generated by 52 percent, dropping from more than 450 pounds per car to just about 200 pounds in 2016 — and all the waste that is now produced is either reused or recycled. Less than 5 percent goes to Covanta's Indianapolis site to be converted from waste to energy, but Subaru hopes to soon have that down to zero, too.
Such big gains have been realized in a variety of ways, according to Easterday.
Some changes are as simple as no longer providing or using plastic cutlery in the cafeteria and having specific labeled bins for recycling different types of materials. The facility also has a compost program on site for food waste that allows employees to take home the compost material to use in their gardens.
Other changes were not quite as easy, Easterday said, but have seen big results. Namely, Subaru has worked with its suppliers to eliminate some of the redundant packaging that parts are shipped in, or to return the packaging for reuse.
Many of the ideas about reducing waste and energy come from those working within the plant and on the production lines. One employee suggested sending the polystyrene, or Styrofoam-like, packaging back to the supplier.
"Originally, executives and engineers thought that wouldn't be cost effective to basically ship air across the ocean," Easterday said, until an analysis revealed that it would be cost effective if reused four or more times.
"I think the record now is a piece of packaging that has been reused 26 times," he continued, "and that one idea alone from one of our associates saves us about $1 million a year."
That number is just a small chunk compared to the savings the company has seen since going zero landfill and reducing waste. More specifically, Subaru of Indiana has recognized a net $13 million benefit over the cost of its environmental program in nearly the last 15 years — having used some of its savings to reinvest in its programs or pay to find markets for difficult-to-recycle materials.
Still, that number often catches visitors' attention.
"When I would speak to other companies on tours, the CEOs would come in and listen politely," Coogan told IndyStar. "But many wouldn't engage until I mentioned how much we saved."
When she first started in the business 30 years ago, the sentiment was that it costs too much to be environmentally friendly.
"But now we are able to prove that it costs too much not to be environmentally friendly, both with the impacts on the environmental and the actual financial costs," she added. "For many it's not about tree hugging but about the bottom line, but it still is getting them to make those changes."
The Subaru Lafayette plant has had visitors from more than 200 different companies to learn about how they do what they do — including competitors, but Easterday added they want everyone to make these changes.
That said, the company is still looking to make new changes of its own.
With waste reduction under control, Subaru now is shifting its focus to reducing the energy used at the plant and emissions released in the process. It is exploring alternative energy sources, including solar, and has switched its transportation fleet to natural gas to decrease the carbon footprint. The new goal: to be carbon neutral.
With sustainability at the forefront, the automaker wants to spread what it knows outside the confines of a manufacturing plant.
In 2015, Subaru began a partnership with the National Parks — implementing pilot programs in Yosemite, Denali and Grand Teton parks — to help them go zero landfill. So far, the programs have seen great success: Although park visitation has increased, Coogan said, the amount of waste per visitor is on the decline.
Carmel teacher Josh Kendrick was surprised and amazed when he learned about Subaru's efforts, pointing out the irony that normally he would think an auto manufacturer would learn about sustainability from the national parks and not the other way around.
Before taking a cross-country road trip with his family to numerous national parks, Kendrick visited the Lafayette facility both to learn as an educator and to pick up some tips for reducing waste in his own life.
"The visual of trash in these wonderful places and parks was always present, and much of the trash will be around for as long as, if not longer, than the hundreds of years old trees in these parks," he said. "We might buy that one cup of coffee today, but we need to remember that we are one of millions doing that, and then it goes to the landfill."
"We all have something we can learn from Subaru."
Source: The Indianapolis Star
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com