Americans just can’t seem to get their fill of Subarus for some reason. The Japanese automaker, that for years was written-off as this funky car manufacturer which only made off-road station wagons for Vermont-based art teachers and Paul Hogan, has since received a tidal wave of positive press for its quality and affordability, which boosted demand to such a level that no one (including Subaru) could have ever predicted. The Cheat Sheet reported on Subaru’s unbridled growth a few months back, when news that dealers were having trouble keeping up with sales flooded everyone’s newsfeed, and while this is a good problem to have, it still remains a problem nonetheless.
But we won’t get into the cons today; instead, we’re looking at Subaru’s efforts of going green. Going green has become so popular, that by merely stamping the word on a product is almost guaranteed to boost sales of everything from shampoo to Subaru station wagons. The Cheat Sheet recently was granted full access to the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Ind., where cars like the Outback and Legacy are made. Commonly referred to as Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Inc. (SIA), this 3.4-million square-foot operation is set to grow to 3.9-million square-feet once its current expansion is complete, and with drivers chomping at the bit to get in a Subie, this growth can’t come a minute too soon.
What most Americans don’t know is that Subaru’s Indiana plant has been quietly cranking out cars for the masses since the latter part of 1989, and as time has progressed, so has its dedication to the environment. Not to say that the Japanese firm wasn’t interested in working with Mother Nature from day one, it’s just that over the years they have discovered new and better ways of doing so. What started off as an 832-acre purchase in the heartland of Indiana has morphed into a National Wildlife Federation (N.W.F.) sanctioned “Backyard Wildlife Habitat,” as Subaru’s purposeful over-purchasing of land with an intent to protect instead of develop garnered it an official nod from the N.W.F. in 2003.
From there, Subaru has been on quite the green spree. Employees and execs alike brainstorm constantly on how to save energy, use fewer products, and recycle more waste. In 2004, less than a year after it became a wildlife habitat, the Indiana plant was awarded for being the first U.S. automotive manufacturing plant to achieve zero landfill production status. Nary a damn thing hits the landfill, as a dedicated infrastructure of environmental conscientiousness keeps employees and visitors alike on the green side of the aisle. Sure, there probably is a small slice of waste that hits the dump, but according to Subaru, this amount is so minuscule that “If you put a single bag of trash at your curb this week, you’ve sent more to a landfill than SIA will this entire year!”
Here’s what makes this operation so green: One of the first things you will notice are the recycling containers, which seem to be everywhere you turn and are always clearly labeled. These aren’t just a handful of green trash cans in the corner either; to have a zero landfill operation of this size, you have to consider things like spent Sharpies and paint can disposal, or what to do with the packaging materials once a skid of brake calipers is unloaded. Everything from the parts that go onto the cars to the facilities themselves have to be taken into consideration — even a misplaced paper towel can be considered waste, and for this plant to remain a zero-landfill facility it has to maintain a perfect track record every… single… day.
On the manufacturing side of things, we found it fascinating how all of the scrap metal from the stamping shop gets collected so that it may be melted into smaller car parts. Any over-spray in the paint shop gets saved for highway safety barricades. Spent light bulbs get crushed and turned into reflective road striping, and all of the lightweight styrofoam, cardboard, and plastic packaging that is used to ship parts to SIA gets returned to the part suppliers in a never ending cyclical recycling routine. These guys are so gung-ho about recycling that they even sweep up all the tiny chunks of weld slag so that the copper can be reclaimed. Hell, they even found a way to recycle their dust!
But when you’re walking through a massive operation like this, trying to soak it all in, it’s kind of hard to believe that this polished green machine can crank-out so many cars a year while making the average American household look guiltier than a mid-size offshore oil spill. Repetitive welding robots, trundling tractor-trailer trucks, stamping machines that are four stories tall, and assembly lines that rival the length of a football field are all operating with an environmental footprint that is smaller than your average American house. It needs to manage its energy wisely too — no matter how green this plant may be, it still is powered by a coal plant up the road, which as we all know is a leading cause of poor air quality. To combat this unavoidable issue, SIA functions a lot like a power-saving app on a smart phone: It powers down areas that are not in use, or setting them on energy-saving stand-by mode until operations continue again.
Perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of the whole tour was when we discovered that multiple tests have proven that the water leaving SIA’s property is cleaner than the water that enters it. Thanks to a complex filtration system, and a reduction in water use, the aforementioned wildlife habitat remains clean and safe for all of the animals that call this sprawling chunk of Indiana prairie home, with daily sightings of American Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons, coyote, deer, Great Horned Owls, rabbits, beavers, muskrats, egrets, vultures, hawks, and countless other critters reinforcing this fact. They even designed their test track a certain way so that it it did not disturb a Blue Heron sanctuary in the center.
Back in the plant, it’s lunch hour, and as we make our way over to the cafeteria for some Q&A time, there’s a feeling that this is the way all large-scale plants should be running: If Subaru can do it, anyone can, right? Twenty-five years ago everyone thought Subaru was nuts for taking such a strong interest in the environment, because nobody really gave a damn back then about recycling or lessening their carbon footprint. But the underrated Japanese automaker stuck to its guns because it knew this was the right thing to do, and decades later they are world leaders in environmental stewardship, and they set the bar for all others to follow. With most of our questions answered, and lunch now complete, we headed over to a long line of waste bins, knowing full well that while it may take another few seconds to sort everything into its proper place, there’s a good reason why there is a container for cans, cardboard, glass, compost, and all other manner of material.