Vehicle production has ramped up in the past few decades with a global economy of cars coming in from all over the world. With competitors from places like Germany and Japan, US automakers have had to increase manufacturing rates to a point where most plants are running three shifts of workers 24 hours, 7 days a week with the 7th day typically for maintenance to make sure everything is working correctly for the start of the next week. The process of making a car is not a very clean process however, especially from the wastes that manufacturing plants produce. It is an arduous process that takes a lot of steps from welding and stamping to paint and direct injection molding for plastic parts, all of which have their own impacts on the environment.
In the American automotive industry, like with the rest of America, the infrastructure of the manufacturing plants has been around a while and it shows. With increasing regulations, it has become very expensive and makes it difficult to optimize a plant to reduce emissions, especially when the plant can’t afford to stop running. However, building a new plant, makes it easy to progress through the phases of optimization. A fairly large issue in politics right now is the movement of automotive plants to other countries and, in the eyes of politicians, their reasoning is that it is for the companies to be able to pay workers less and pay less taxes in other countries than the US. While these are some of the reasons, it leaves a lot of money left over for the quality and efficiency of the plant or in other words creating a greener lower emitting plant. For example Renault, a French manufacturer, recently built and opened a plant in Tangier, Morocco.
The Tangier site began producing cars in 2012, with a capacity of 170,000 vehicles on the Logan (B0) platform – a mixture of the Kangoo passenger car and light commercial vehicle (LCV), Dacia Logan, Dacia Sandero, Peugeot Partner and Citroën Berlingo. Its environmental impact has been reduced to levels that have never before been reached by a bodywork assembly plant: CO2 emissions cut by 98%, the equivalent of about 135,000 tonnes of CO2 per year; no industrial wastewater discharged into the natural ecosystem; and the quantity of water consumed in manufacturing down by 70%. (Venables, 2014)
These events have been happening all over the automotive industry so it is not a specific issue for just America. The Renault site is a huge recent development especially since the process of making a car is a taxing event for the environment. An environmental historian Mark Foster concluded that “fully one-third of the total environmental damage caused by automobiles occurred before they were sold and driven” (Melosi, 2010). It was estimated that creating a car produces 29 tons of waste and 1,207 million cubic yards of polluted air. This comes from extracting the necessary materials in order to create a car which includes, iron ore, copper, lead, and much more to make the glass, steel, aluminum, and plastics.
Just two decades ago, with the industry in a period of growth, there were hundreds of OEM owned manufacturing plants and thousands of suppliers all supporting them with their own plants. With all these plants, there was a large out flux of emissions with the smoke stacks releasing sulfuric acid into the atmosphere and the environment. Overall at this point the industry was responsible for 1 percent of the hazardous waste being dumped in the environment. Most of these materials, came from the paint shops. Below is a video of how the paint shop works in a Toyota Plant to give you an idea of how a car is painted and how much material and energy is used.
Video Link – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6ymiQO3sPI
These shops, in order to get the finish the customer desires and have it be durable, require a ton of solvents and water that eventually become waste after it is used. In Michigan, these chemicals could amount to up to about a quarter of all volatile organic compounds that are released into the environment. The water itself becomes contaminated and leaves the plant much dirtier than it had been when it entered. Like what was said before, retrofitting these plants is not a very easy or quick thing to do. According to the video, they output 700 cars a day at some plants so shutting down a plant to renovate is usually a huge problem. That’s why overall it seems to be a better idea for both business and the environment to just build new plants that can start out as being cleaner and more efficient than the older models.
Probably one of the best plants to benchmark in terms of efficiency, is the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Their cars on the other hand, are a different story. Unlike most US plants that get most of their energy from power plants burning coal, the Chattanooga plant has a 65 acre field dedicated solely to the plant and actually gives it around 12% of the total power required. Another 50% actually comes from hydroelectric plants and nuclear plants adding on to an even more sustainable power source for this plant. It also uses more environmentally friendly paint finishes on all of its cars reducing the effects of the VOCs.
What is becoming more apparent to in the automotive industry is the need for being more environmentally friendly. What we are beginning to realize is that being more green actually produces more money through the costs it save. If more and more automakers move to newer plants, as it looks like is the general trend, we will start to see a decrease in emissions from the manufacturers leading to an overall decrease in environmental impacts. The job growth and loss is a separate issue that needs to be addressed but no matter what, there needs to be cleaner manufacturing processes put in place. Companies like Ford had planned to “reduce energy use in its plants by 20 percent by 2016, and cut water usage and waste by 30 percent by 2015, according to Wards. Water savings in 2012 alone amounted to $3 million” (Ingram, 2013). Hopefully in the future, we will see the auto industry actually become a forerunner in the race for a greener manufacturing process, as in history, they are usually lagging or fighting against any improvements in their environmental impact.