Her lunch over, Carmin Brown paused in front of the three recycling bins trying to figure out how to dispose of her uneaten spinach salad.
Hmmm, let’s see…
Not cans and bottles. Compostable material? Non-compostable?
That's the the type of thought the 1,400 employees at Toyota Engineering and Manufacturing North America are giving to what used to be garbage ever since Kevin Butt took their trash cans away. He’s Toyota’s chief environmental officer, in charge of making sure Toyota hits its zero-landfill corporate-wide goal. Zero-landfill is just what it sounds like: zero waste going to landfills. Kevin figured a good way to change old habits and reach the goal was to take the trash cans away. And how was that received?
“It’s been a learning curve,“ he says.
“There was a mini-revolt,“ says spokesperson Stephanie Arvin.
After the associates got over the shock of not being able to shoot paper-wad baskets from their desks, there was a change in attitude and people like Carmin Brown started thinking about things like waste streams and varieties of plastic.
It turns out the spinach salad is indeed compostable, and the remains of Carmin’s lunch, along with all the other organic materials discarded during the day were taken to Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, Ky., put into a three-ton composter there, where they will decay into a rich mulch used to grow flowers and vegetables.
The purging of the waste cans was a small but significant step toward Toyota’s zero-landfill goal. And Toyota has indeed achieved the goal (zero landfill is defined as diverting at least 95 percent of all waste away from landfills and into recycling or reuse). It was one thing to reach the goal at the TEMA offices in Erlanger, where most people work at desk jobs. Quite another to go zero landfill at its 12 manufacturing plants in North America, where they make cars, engines, auto parts and other things traditionally thought of as dirty manuifacturing. Toyota has achieved that at all but two of its plants, and those two are 97 percent of the way there. Pretty good accomplishment for a company that's in the business of making more than 1.5 million a cars a year in North America.
They did it by doing things like sorting through and separating the 100 or more types of plastic caps and plugs used during auto production, returning some to the suppliers, re-using others and recycling the rest, eliminating more than 100 tons of waste that previously was discarded in landfills.
At a plant in Canada, they worked with suppliers to do away with the shrink wrap used to protect auto parts during shipping. That cut out 200,000 pounds of waste a year, and Toyota is working to spread the practice to the rest of its factories.
And then there’s the matter of the utensils and food containers in the TEMA cafeteria. Once you’re done with lunch, you could probably eat the fork too. They’re made of corn starch and soy, and smooth and sturdy as plastic. Spudware, it’s called, and it’s compostable, along with organic waste. The food containers are made from corn, the wrapping is made from wood pulp and the plates are made from plant fibers such as sugar cane, wheat and reeds. It’s all compostable and none of it need go to a landfill.
“Toyota operates on the foundation that waste is not good,” Butt says.
There’s a higher cost to some of the practices -- transportation and some of the new materials are more expensive. But there are cost savings, too. In all of its North American operations, Toyota is saving $1.3 million a year by going zero-landfill, largely in landfill tipping fees.
Toyota is not the only automaker to lighten the burden on waste dumps, but it has established itself as a leader in the practice and in green pracitces in general. Eliminating landfill waste is just part of Toyota’s environmental posture. Sound environmental practices are woven into its corporate philosophy. At Toyota, its mission statement is its "Guiding Principles," of which No. 3 is “dedicate ourselves to providing clean and safe products and enhancing the quality of life everywhere through our activities.” No. 6 is “Pursue growth in harmony with the global community through innovative management.”
The company maintains an Earth Charter as a guide to its environmental practices, with its first “action guideline” being “Always be concerned about the environment.”
These principles work their way into practice. Toyota is out in front of the world’s automakers with hybrid cars, selling well over a million worldwide, more than half of them in North America. It puts soybeans in its seats (soy-based polyurethane foam), lowering the amount of petroleum used to build each car. At the Georgetown plant, it reuses 30 million gallons of industrial wastewater and rainwater that runs off the parking lots and rooftops, diverting it to a retention pond, filtering it and using it in boiler and chiller systems. Workers at its plant in Fremont, Calif. paint bumpers with a water-based primer, contributing to a 50 percent reduction in hazardous emissions from the plastics shop.
Toyota has carefully cultivated its green image and uses that reputation in its marketing and advertising. But green thinking is undoubtedly embedded in its corporate DNA and informs and influences decision making and policy. That's not to say environmental groups worship the road Toyota drives on. it's been attacked for opposing more-stringent fuel-efficiency standards and even its hybrids have been questioned as not being the fuel-efficient stars they are made out to be. And the company certainly makes some gas guzzlers that leave a carbon footprint two lanes wide.
But Toyota, as a company whose sales are growing, is in a position to lead the auto industry into the green future, just as it led it into the era of fuel-efficiency in the 1970s.
Other major automakers are chasing its dust in hybrid technology and fuel efficiency, with $4 gas making that effort more urgent. Equally as important though, Toyota may be changing the world one person at a time. People like Carmin Brown are not only thinking about zero waste at work, but at home. "It's made me a little more aware," she says. One small step: she's now recycling cans and bottles at home.
Multiply that attitude by Toyota's thousands of workers, and real change begins to happen.
David Holthaus is Innovation and Job News Editor for Soapbox.
Photography by Scott Beseler
on location at Toyota, Erlanger, KY
Enjoy this story? Sign up
for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.