Sustainability Blog

Fuji Heavy Industry, the parent company of Subaru, first inquired about the feasibility of achieving zero waste at their Indiana manufacturing plant in 2002.  Two years later, Subaru had successfully become America’s first “zero landfill” auto maker.  Their website states: “Since May 2004, Subaru’s United States manufacturing plants have not sent a single thing to any landfill.  100% of manufacturing waste is either recycled or turned into electricity.”

Subaru is attempting to translate their success in zero waste manufacturing to waste management with the National Park Service (NPS).  They have partnered with the NPS on three zero-landfill pilot programs at Yosemite, Denali, and Grand Teton National Parks.  Visitors to these parks generate 2200, 250, and 1800 tons of trash respectively each year and identifying creative solutions for handling this waste stream would be extremely beneficial for these parks.  Innovation in reducing waste streams for any organization is increasing in importance as landfill management in the United States has changed in recent years.

In 1988 there were 7924 landfills in the United States.  In 2009 that number had dropped to 1908.  This is good news; however, those 1908 landfills have gotten exponentially larger.  Total municipal solid waste (MSW) has increased by 65% since 1980 and per capita MSW has increased 20% over that time.  The design and operation of landfills are now heavily regulated, which accounts for the fewer number of landfills.  To raise awareness, the EPA created a map of all landfills in the United States in 2010 and their corresponding carbon dioxide emissions.  One of the last resorts for diverting waste from landfills is waste-to-energy via incineration.

As of 2010, the United States had 88 “mass burn” waste-to-energy incinerators that burned approximately 12% of all solid waste to generate electricity and contributed to increased carbon dioxide emissions.  Unfortunately, waste-to-energy incinerators may give off large amounts of hazardous pollutants that must be captured using expensive devices, such as lime scrubbers, and then properly stored elsewhere.  In addition to carbon dioxide, methane gas production is a major byproduct of landfills as organic material decomposes.  Some landfills have managed to capture methane emissions for clean energy generation while others simply burn off the methane as it reaches the surface.  

Although US waste management practices are improving by developing waste to energy practices, they only recover a fraction of the energy lost in the disposal of waste while still increasing landfill size at an unsustainable rate. Many other countries have not even begun to take proactive solutions to solid waste disposal.  To ensure sustainable MSW management, continued innovation in policy and technology must take place.  This is where innovations from companies like Subaru can help.  Visit Subaru’s website and subscribe to their environmental newsletter In order to follow the latest updates on their progress with the National Park Service zero-landfill pilot programs.