THE SIGHT OF AUTO WORKERS CRAWLING through dumpsters suggests tough times in the auto industry, but Honda of America Mfg. employees have been doing it for years to ferret out waste.

The auto maker says 10 of its 14 manufacturing plants in North America now send zero waste to landfills, and the remaining four dump only small amounts of paper and plastic trash from their cafeterias in landfills.

Considering that auto plants generate millions of pounds of offal every year, it is a significant accomplishment, and Honda gives much of the credit to its garbage-picking workers for eliminating 4.4 billion lbs. (2 billion kg) of waste material that would have been sent to landfills during the past 10 years.

Karen Heyob, a manager who oversees Honda's green factory initiatives in North America, says the total amount of industrial waste the auto maker sends to landfills has dwindled from 62.8 lbs. (28.4 kg) per vehicle produced in fiscal-year 2001 to an estimated 1.8 lbs. (0.8 kg) per vehicle in the current fiscal year.

To better understand where all the waste was coming from, Honda officials say teams of employees actually combed through dumpsters and piles of plant refuse to determine origins.

They identified and implemented hundreds of waste-reduction and recycling initiatives, from finding ways to reduce metal scrap in stamping processes to changing the way parts were packaged to minimizing the use of paper and plastic in cafeterias.

Many of the recycling and waste-reduction activities were undertaken through programs where teams of Honda employees engage in an annual competition to improve Honda's value to society, a spokesman says.

In the case of cafeteria rubbish, most Honda plants switched to washable dishware and disposing of solid waste through composting, recycling and energy recovery, which usually entails burning waste to generate electricity.

The only two remaining landfill waste streams in all of Honda's North American production activities are paper, plastic and food trash from worker break rooms and cafeterias at the auto maker's vehicle and motorcycle plants in El Salto, Mexico, and a byproduct of a paint pretreatment process for aluminum body panels at both the East Liberty and Marysville, OH, facilities, Heyob says.

The cafeteria trash in Mexico is difficult to eliminate because disposing of it in a more environmentally responsible manner would require transporting it more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km), a Honda spokesman says.

The paint pretreatment chemical currently cannot be recycled because of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Heyob says.

Ironically, the chemical could be recycled, but it is associated with a process the EPA historically has deemed toxic. The process has changed, but the rules governing it have not, so the chemical cannot be reused yet.

All major auto makers are working to have green factories, but Heyob says Honda's accomplishment is significant because of the high percentage of engines, transmissions and stampings it produces in North America.

Volkswagen's new plant in Chattanooga, TN, is ultra-green in many ways, for instance, but it will be importing its engines and transmissions from overseas.

Engines and transmissions create tough environmental issues because they are comprised of big cast-metal parts that are molded in large-scale foundries.

Foundries generate huge quantities of what's known as “foundry sand,” which is used in molten metal casting processes and usually sent to landfills.

However, Honda engine plants in Ohio, Alabama and Canada now are reusing virtually all leftover sand from casting operations and recycled 9,400 tons (8,527 t) in just the 2010 fiscal year, Heyob says.


Like vehicle fuel efficiency and safety, having factories that create zero, or close to zero, landfill waste is becoming a new area of competition among auto makers. Subaru even has aired television ads about the zero landfill status of its plant in Lafayette, IN.

However, Subaru has just one plant in the U.S. When it comes to sheer numbers, General Motors claims bragging rights.

“We believe GM has more landfill-free facilities than any other auto maker,” says Mike Robinson, vice president-environment, energy and safety policy for GM. “Our engineers and suppliers are finding ways to reduce challenging waste streams, eliminate scrap and design for the environment.”

GM claims to have 76 landfill-free manufacturing facilities around the world. It hopes to add 10 more to the list by the end of 2011, plus a number of non-manufacturing facilities.

In 2010, all of GM's worldwide facilities — including regular and landfill-free plants — recycled 92% of the waste they generated, the auto maker says.

“Being landfill-free has become a point of pride for our people, and we hope even more facilities achieve the goal this year,” says John Bradburn, manager of GM's waste-reduction efforts.

One non-manufacturing GM facility in Flint, MI, is pursuing landfill-free status by using environmentally friendly, bio-based shipping foam from supplier Landaal Packaging Systems.

The packing material is used to protect products such as sheet metal and stampings. Made from extruded cornstarch, the foam is both biodegradable and compostable.

All of Toyota's 14 North American plants have had zero or near-zero landfill status “for quite some time,” a spokeswoman says. “We don't talk about it very much, but maybe we should.”

Actually, Toyota's 2010 North American Environmental Report talks quite a bit about Toyota's ingenious ways of eliminating waste:

Its plant in Buffalo, WV, sends plastic scrap to a local recycling company that turns the material into flying discs similar to Frisbees. When students from local schools visit the plant on field trips, the toys are given out to demonstrate how waste can be recycled into something useful and fun.

The plant handed out 1,500 of the discs last year. The Buffalo plant also sends off waste plastic to be recycled into highway guardrails.

At the auto maker's plant in Georgetown, KY, workers compost waste from the cafeteria and use it to fertilize a 6-acre (2.4-hectare) garden grown near the plant.

About 80% of the vegetables grown there are donated to a local food bank in nearby Lexington, which provides food for low-income residents. The other 20% is used for food in the cafeteria.

Toyota also says an employee at its Canadian sales headquarters has taken the personal initiative to ensure milk cartons are properly recycled and do not end up in a landfill.

Each week, he collects about 125 milk cartons and takes them either to the recycling depot or his own personal recycling container at home. Last year, he collected more than 6,500 cartons for recycling, Toyota says.

All three of Toyota's North American foundry facilities are zero landfill, a spokesman says.

“In terms of zero landfill, what is not recycled or reclaimed is shipped to a local incinerator and burned for fuel power.”

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