Saturday, April 23, 2005

Toyota and the environment article

Toyota is Serious About the Environment

by Sam Wardle

Toyota's streamlined plants aim for zero waste.

Until recently, the automotive industry was not closely associated with environmental responsibility. After all, cars can guzzle gas and release harmful emissions; not to mention the process of manufacturing a car can be costly and wasteful. But with the advent of gas/electric hybrids, the idea that automobiles can have less of an impact on the environment has become a reality. And Toyota Motor Manufacturing isn’t stopping there. They are streamlining their factories worldwide into landfill-free, low emissions plants.

Carl Kurz, Assistant General Manager of Facilities Control for Toyota of Georgetown, Kentucky, has no illusions about why his factory is working to become completely landfill-free by December of this year. “There are no government regulations whatsoever for the disposal of non-hazardous solid waste,” he says. “Technically, we could put as much into the landfill as we want.” And citing the fact that landfills are the central, thus least expensive way to dispose of industrial waste, he adds “Economically, it’s really the easiest thing to do.”

But the folks at Toyota believe that direct profits are not the only thing that drives an industry. Over recent years, good environmental stewardship for its own sake has become an integral aspect of their corporate philosophy. Exhibit A: the commitment to become landfill-free world wide, evidenced at the Georgetown plant where Kurz works.

Americans generate 11.7 billion tons of non-hazardous waste a year, 6.5 billion tons of that comes from manufacturing. In fact, only 2 percent of all trash comes from consumers, largely becomes for every ton of waste you throw out, there are twenty tons created in the manufacturing process of whatever it is that is being disposed of. For most factories, this enormous propagation of garbage is an accepted modus operandi, but not at Toyota, whose entire workforce is striving to see opportunities even in the stuff they toss out.

Toyota uses a philosophy called ‘kaizen,’ meaning ‘continuous improvement,’ with its employees in order to increase efficiency and productivity at its plants. Basically, it amounts to one giant suggestion box. All employees are encouraged to make these suggestions; the Georgetown plant received over a thousand last year, and they have been integrated into many waste saving procedures.

For example, some technicians in the paint shop suggested a new technology called a ‘cartridge reduction system.’ Now in use, it reduces the amount of paint thinner needed by 30%. And in the cafeteria, wasted food and paper cups and plates are now recycled into mulch for the plant’s outdoor landscaping and flowerbeds. There are future plans to build a greenhouse in the factory, and to use the cafeteria mulch to grow flowers, rather than purchasing them from an outside source. Advances coming from suggestions like these have, in many cases, reduced the plant’s overall output of waste, and in some cases, eliminated it altogether. Paradoxically, these methods are helping Toyota save money, which adds to the bottom line.

Other ways the plant has found to eliminate landfill waste are as simple as recycling plastic caps that come on premanufactured parts or selling their trash to other plants who have a use for it. Now, instead of just shipping it to the dump, plant managers sell the scrap metal generated in automobile production to nearby companies. Kurz explains that this is sometimes difficult to do in a cost-effective fashion, since the success of projects like this depends on finding someone nearby who has a use for the scrap. In one case, he mentions, they found a scrap yard interested in buying from them, but it was located in California. The cost of shipping was far too much for it to be feasible, so they had to keep looking. “But we’re always finding new ways to do this,” he says. But as more people start thinking this way, the transaction costs will go down.

Toyota’s environmental commitment extends beyond finding creative solutions for industrial waste. In central Kentucky, where Toyota’s Georgetown plant is located, city water reserves often drop dangerously low during the frequent summer droughts or in even some cases during short dry spells. Naturally, a plant like Toyota uses a large amount of water, but, Kurz explains, “We don’t want to get into the habit of just using and disposing.” He adds, “We have a system online to clean and recycle our wastewater. Right now, 10% of last month’s wastewater is being used in the plant. Our final goal is 50%.”

Another utility-saving advance the plant has made was to retrofit all of their more than 10,000 lighting fixtures with a new ‘pulse start’ lighting system that saves a megawatt of electricity a month. “It costs us some money to do things like this,” Kurz says, “But it’s worth it. That’s our corporate culture, that’s the way we want to do business. We want to be the greenest auto manufacturer in the world.” And, in the end, no one is likely to complain about the smaller utility bills.

Toyota is also interested in being a good resident of its local community. Kurz mentions that they are looking into going below EPA emissions standards, which would give back emissions credits to the state of Kentucky. The state is only allowed so many pounds of emissions per year, and the freeing up of those credits might allow another manufacturer to set up shop in the state, thus stimulating local economic growth.

Kurz claims that Toyota is not making these advances as a PR strategy, in fact the so called ‘greenness’ of the company has been largely ignored. A search of a national magazine and newspaper database revealed only two positive articles on the Georgetown plant’s environmentally friendly posture, both printed in the Lexington Herald Leader, the only large paper in Central Kentucky. Another mention was made by a minor environmental organization, which criticized the plant for the amount of pollution generated during their manufacturing process, in comparison with other plants. Toyota defended itself by pointing out that their engines are made on sight, whereas most other plants import them already made, thus reducing the perceived amount of pollution. Obviously, the government is not forcing them to adopt an environmentally friendly philosophy, since they have already gone beyond many regulations. They are doing it, Kurz asserts, to be what he calls ‘a good corporate citizen.’ “We always want the focus of what we produce and how we produce it to be environmentally friendly,” he says, “because people are becoming more aware of the resources of the world being finite.”

All of this fits under the company’s ‘2010 Vision,’ which Kurz says entails “0 environmental violations, 0 complaints and total environmental protection and assurance that we’re building the highest quality product without degradation to the environment.” It seems somewhat unbelievable that the world’s third largest auto manufacturer, and tenth largest company overall, would take the initiative to actually spend money to go beyond government ecological regulations. For now, Toyota stands alone in the respect, but the more Toyota gets press like this, the more other companies will begin to follow suit.

“It’s wonderful,” Kurz says, “to see the environment get better.”

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