National Parks Tap Subaru for Zero-Waste Advice

Park visitors leave behind 100 million pounds of trash each year. Fortunately, that’s about to end. The National Park Service, National Parks Conservation Association, Subaru, and all the bears and squirrels agree trash is not their favorite thing, so they’ve started taking steps to ensure that zero trash is left at the park.

The initiative is starting with Yosemite in California, Teton in Wyoming and Denali in Alaska. Subaru of America put out an ad that tells the story in a beautiful way. The ad thought provokingly states: “We are what we leave behind.”

So, why did the National Parks Service reach out to Subaru for help? Because the automaker is a waste reduction ninja.

“If you … went to a Starbucks this morning and threw away your cup, you’ve put more into a landfill than we have in the last 12 years,” said Tom Easterday, the executive vice president of Subaru of Indiana Automotive (SIA), the automaker’s only U.S. manufacturing plant. This year the factory is expected to make 400,000 vehicles. For the past 12 years, SIA and two Subaru plants in Japan have produced zero waste. “May 4, 2004, was the last time we sent anything to a landfill,” Easterday said.

Subaru of Indiana Automotive sits on a 832-acre site in Lafayette, Indiana. Designated as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation, the site is peppered with woods, 1800s prairie grasses, deer, coyotes, raccoons, blue heron, bald eagles and butterflies.

Since the time this manufacturing site achieved zero waste, more than 100 companies interested in learning how the heck they did it have come knocking on the door. SIA said ‘Glad you dropped by’ and agreed to benchmark with them. Easterday cited three familiar steps: reduce, reuse and recycle. (Hint: The order is important.)

“First you reduce, that’s the key,” he said. From 2000-2014, the plant cut its waste production in half. “Once you reduce, you eliminate a lot of your waste to begin with.” Reducing waste is the best thing for the environment and saves the most money. It’s a win-win.

“After reducing, then you reuse.” In 2014, the plant reused more than 8,000 tons of materials — that doesn’t even include returnable packaging from suppliers since the suppliers’ own the packaging.

SIA also returned 1.4 million caps to suppliers for reuse. “On an automatic transmission, you’ll have a cap that will protect the lines during transportation so nothing gets into those, and then you have to take them off. Our associates on the line have barrels that are different colors and they will take them off and put them into the appropriate container. That’s then sent back to the supplier when we go back to pick up more of the parts that we’re getting from the supplier.”

Even the employee’s lunch food scraps are reused. Two large onsite composters hold over 40,000 pounds of organics like food scraps. “We have a permit from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management that allows us to give that compost away. So our associates take it home and use it in their gardens.”

How does SIA come up with all of these brilliant ideas? Simple: It gets thousands of suggestions from employees.

These suggestions are called “kaizens,” a Japanese word that means continuous improvement.

Employees earn points or financial rewards for kaizen suggestions that are implemented. Over 1,000 suggestions were given to improve environmental stewardship last year. And how many were implemented? “Well over 95 percent of all kaizen suggestions are reviewed and implemented at least in part,” Easterday told us. “Our associates do a tremendous job of environmental stewardship here at SIA.” No joke.

A couple of employees were even given cars because their kaizen suggestions were that great. One suggestion, to return transmission packaging to the parent company, not only reduces environmental impact, but it also saves the company over a million dollars a year. SIA has found reusing materials so practical that it sends over 7,000 tons of materials back to its parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, for reuse.

After reduction and reuse comes recycling. That’s because the reduction activities are what generate the most cost savings, then the reuse activities. Sometimes the recycling ends up costing money. Throw in the fact that recycling typically uses energy and often requires transportation, which emits CO2, and you can see why recycling is the least favorable option. In 2014, SIA recycled more than 35,000 tons of waste. It even recycles light bulbs in a cool machine called the Bulb Eater. The machine separates the glass from the metal parts and captures the gas in the fluorescent tube.

On a net basis the plant saves $1 million to $2 million per year due to reduction and reuse. No wonder Subaru has the best profit margin in the automotive industry.

The reuse and recycling doesn’t stop at the factory though. About 96 percent of the components in a Subaru vehicle can be recycled or reused: steel, aluminum, plastics, steering wheels, seats, batteries, tires, etc.

After learning about Subaru’s zero-waste Jujutsu, it’s pretty easy to see why the national parks would turn to Subaru for help. The automaker is the best of the best. When approached, Subaru of America sent over Denise Coogan, manager of safety and environmental compliance for SIA. She’s now visiting the parks and figuring out a game plan like a boss. She even dumpster dives when she visits. Based on her research, she’s confident the national parks can achieve zero waste.

“What we do at Subaru is not rocket science,” Coogan said. “The model can work for a national park; it can work for a manufacturer; it can work for an NGO. It can work for anyone because it’s simple.”

She says once the national parks taste some success, they will gain momentum. “And that will bring more success and more success, and before they know it they will be there.”

Image credit: Subaru