TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Toyota has improved its manufacturing-related environmental performance, but a couple of metrics still need work, admits its top environmental officer in North America.

Toyota aims to exceed environmental compliance standards by 20% at all its North American manufacturing operations, believing such efforts make for a profitable business and reduce the cost of retrofitting to meet new standards down the road, says Kevin Butt, general manager and chief environmental and safety officer for Toyota Motor Engineering and Mfg. North America.

Toyota expects to book $500,000 in savings this year due to its North American conservation activities.

Yet, Butt would like to see the auto maker do more both in water conservation and the battery manufacturing and recovery process, he tells the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars here.

Water conservation is the No.1 environmental issue Americans face, even bigger than climate change, he says.

“Folks don’t understand (water conservation is) an issue yet,” Butt tells Ward’s. “We have to be able to find (savings)” in every region of the U.S. and North America.

For example, Toyota recycles gray water at its San Antonio plant, home to the Tundra and Tacoma pickup trucks.

“In that (arid) area, it was very clear we needed to recycle, we needed to re-utilize our gray water,” the executive says. “So we put systems in place for that.”

“But it shouldn’t take a region to make us do that – we should do it everywhere.”

The mining of rare-earth minerals used in hybrid batteries, electric motors and catalytic converters is a notoriously dirty activity, with lasting environmental consequences.

For that reason, Butt says he’d like to see Toyota “have a lot more influence on how we develop and recycle batteries.” Currently, the auto maker’s Green Guidelines apply only to Tier 1 suppliers, not further down the chain.

The company already takes back, through its dealers, spent nickel-metal-hydride batteries for recycling, but reclamation is not at the desired 100% level, he says.

Butt rattles off a list of green achievements for Toyota’s North American manufacturing unit, such as training line workers to segregate waste for easier recycling and paying to have certain materials recycled that are not easily so.

It also has reduced energy consumption 14% since 2002 at its North American plants, while cutting carbon-dioxide emissions 17% in the region over the same time frame.

Toyota’s North American plants are 100% zero-waste facilities, except for the Blue Springs, MS, Corolla operation coming online this fall. Toyota is required to take certain waste from the Blue Springs facility to a newly opened landfill there, Butt says.

“We are in the process of figuring out how to get around it.”