Recycling saves assemblers money, while saving the environment.

In grammar school, it's important to learn the three R's: reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic. At assembly plants throughout the country, a growing number of engineers are learning a new set of three R's: reduce, reuse and recycle.

Larry Blanchfield, energy and solid waste administrator at Northrop Grumman Corp.'s ship-building facility in Newport News, VA, is one of those engineers. Fifteen years ago, the importance of the environmental three R's hit home in a big way. Waste disposal costs at the facility, which assembles aircraft carriers and submarines, had doubled.

"When the price of anything doubles, that gets your attention," Blanchfield says. "So we set up an ad hoc team to learn what was going on in the world of trash and to find ways to reduce our waste disposal costs."

One year later, the ad hoc team was made a permanent part of the organization, and Northrop began implementing a series of waste reduction projects. The results have been dramatic. Since 1991, the complex has recycled 7,500 tons of office paper and 3,500 tons of cardboard. It recycles wood, asphalt, tires, batteries and toner cartridges from printers. "We recycle more than 6 tons of phone books per year," says Blanchfield, a bit of awe in his voice. "That's a lot of phone books!"

In 1984, Northrop built a special facility to clean 55-gallon drums. Drums that can't be reused are crushed and recycled. The facility also cleans and crushes paint pails. "The facility cost us $400,000, but it diverted more than 3 million pounds of metal waste from the landfill," says Frank Thorn, environmental engineering manager at the 550-acre shipyard. "We got payback in less than 3 years."

Northrop even cleans and reuses respirator filters, a program that saves the company some $68,000 annually. Overall, Northrop estimates that its recycling efforts have provided an economic benefit to the company of more than $2 million since 1991, exclusive of the savings from lower disposal bills.

In December 2003, the shipyard earned ISO 14001 certification. The ISO 14001 standard requires a community or organization to implement an environmental management system. The standard does not set specific environmental performance targets, nor does it supersede existing environmental regulations. But, the standard does require organizations to meet or exceed existing regulations, and to continuously improve their environmental performance.

Getting It Done

A successful recycling program eventually requires the commitment of everyone in an organization, but, as at Northrop, it all starts with a few key people. Ideally, one person should serve as a "champion" for the recycling program. This person should have overall responsibility for researching, developing, implementing and tracking the program. Once a champion has been identified, a team should be established to help develop the program.

Darrel A. Brothersen, resource recycling and waste reduction specialist at Rockwell Collins Inc. (Cedar Rapids, IA), knows the drill well. He has led the company's recycling and waste minimization program since its inception in 1992. An assembler of avionics and communications equipment, Rockwell Collins recycles plastic bags, boxes, trays and other packaging for electronic components. Collection bins are located on the assembly lines and emptied at the end of each workday. The collected material is then transported to local rehabilitation centers, where workers with disabilities sort it for reuse, recycling or disposal. Bubble wrap, peanuts and other dunnage are reused or shared with neighboring businesses.

The program has paid off. Worldwide, the company has reduced the amount of nonhazardous solid waste it sends to landfills from 117 tons per $100 million in sales in 1992, to 69.5 tons per $100 million in sales in 2002. Rockwell Collins has received awards from the Environmental Protection Agency, and 14 of the company's facilities worldwide are ISO 14001 certified.

Once a waste minimization team is in place, the next step is to perform a solid waste audit, says Brothersen. Like it or not, team members will have to get their hands dirty. Trash bags must be emptied and Dumpsters investigated. This should be done several times over a month, since variations in production may cause variations in the waste stream. The team should even visit the local landfill. Photographs documenting the audit will make good training aids later and help sell the recycling program to management.

Once manufacturers know what they're throwing away, they can begin looking for recycling opportunities. What materials are reusable or recyclable? Are any materials worth money? How do recyclers prefer to receive materials? How much will it cost to separate and store recyclables? How much does it cost to throw them away? The team will need to find answers.

Often, recycling efforts can be aided by suppliers. For example, General Motors Corp. (Detroit) asks its suppliers to make packaging more amenable to recycling. "Cartons must be constructed with breakaway features. You can't glue foam to cardboard, and you can't use wooden corner braces," says Lee Hachigian, manager of environmental support systems with GM's Worldwide Facilities Group in Pontiac, MI.

The results at GM's truck assembly plant in Flint, MI, show how successful the company's recycling efforts have been. In 2000, the plant recycled more than 2,000 tons of cardboard, pallets, light tubes, batteries and oil. The plant, which is ISO 14001 certified, recycles more than 600 tons of scrap metal annually.

When manufacturers know what can be recycled, they can determine how much manpower, equipment and floor space will be necessary to handle it. At Lennox (Marshalltown, IA), separate bins for paper, cardboard and scrap metal are placed at strategic locations throughout the plant. The bins are stenciled, labeled and color-coded, so workers know at a glance which material goes where.

"If we find things are getting tossed into the wrong bins, we'll take pictures of that and give them to the supervisors to review with their employees," says Don Merritt, engineering team leader at the company, which has reduced the amount of solid waste it generates by 34 percent.

When planning a waste reduction and recycling program, the team should set specific goals. Targets should be established for total amount of waste generated by the facility, the total amount of waste sent to landfills, and the total amount of recycled waste. Programs that cannot document success will be difficult to justify when budgets are planned, Brothersen warns.

Obtaining management support is the most important step in starting a recycling program, says Brothersen. "People hate change," he says. "Senior management must be committed to the program, because they can empower people to act."

If management is hesitant to adopt the program, engineers must be persistent. "Never take no for an answer," says Brothersen. "Every time I was told no, I would follow up with a question: ‘What information do you need when I address this issue with you again?' That lets them know you're not going to give up, and it forces them to give you a reason why your program shouldn't be implemented."

Training is also critical. At Rockwell, a list of recyclable materials is maintained on the company Intranet, and new hires complete a 20-minute training program on recycling. "A recycling program may start in the corporate office, but it's the people on the shop floor who know where the waste is being generated," says Brothersen.

Returnable Packaging

One of the best ways to reduce waste on the assembly line is to transport parts and finished products in returnable containers. Returnable packaging eliminates the need to dispose of cardboard, wood and dunnage. In addition, returnable packaging improves the flow of product throughout the supply chain; reduces product packaging and transportation costs; and protects parts and assemblies better than expendable packaging.

Returnable containers can be made from plastic, corrugated steel or wire mesh, says Mike Wroblewski, Detroit operations manager with Topper Industrial (Sturtevant, WI). Containers range in size from small, handheld totes to large bins carried by forklifts or handcarts. On the assembly line, small containers are typically presented to operators on gravity-fed roller racks, while large containers are simply positioned right at the point of use.

Large containers can be equipped with gates on one or two sides to give operators easy access to the parts. Large containers for small, bulk parts can be equipped with chutes to feed the parts directly into an automated assembly system. When the container is empty, all four sides collapse for shipping back to the supplier. Dunnage, pallets, top caps and divider sheets also can be made of reusable materials.

Depending on the operation, the parts and the packaging material, returnable containers can last at least 5 to 7 years. Some may last twice that long.

Bret Carlson, engineering services director at Orbis Corp. (Oconomowoc, WI), says returnable containers can greatly reduce the amount of waste produced by an assembly plant. As an example, he cites an automotive assembly plant that recently started using returnable packaging.

"The plant was generating about 95 pounds of waste per vehicle," Carlson recalls. "After implementing a returnable packaging program, that went down to 23 pounds per vehicle. If the plant produces 1,000 vehicles per day, that's 36 tons of waste that's not going to a landfill every day."

Most parts and assemblies can be supplied in returnable containers, which are typically sized to fit optimally on a standard 45- by 48-inch pallet, says Wroblewski. However, for ergonomic reasons, many manufacturers impose a weight limit on handheld containers.

For painted or fragile parts, a standard container can include reusable or recyclable dunnage with custom-fit pockets for individual parts. Static-dissipative containers are also available for electronic assemblies.

For a reusable packaging program to work, assemblers must have a well-managed supply chain and a relatively rapid turnaround time for containers. "If you're going to switch from expendable packaging to reusable containers, you don't want to buy 100 days' worth of containers, because you won't be able to justify the investment," says Carlson. "What you want is one or two days' worth of parts at your plant, a day or two of parts in transit, and a day or two of parts at the supplier. You should be emptying containers as your supplier is filling them up."

Although high-volume assembly plants are ideal candidates for returnable packaging, smaller operations can also benefit from returnable packaging. Carlson says his company supplies returnable containers to an appliance manufacturer that assembles 6,000 stoves daily, as well as to a truck manufacturer assembling just 40 to 60 vehicles per day.

The automotive industry has long been a leader in the use of returnable packaging, but other industries are rapidly adopting the concept.

For example, Corning Inc. (Corning, NY) has developed a system to recover all the packaging material used to transport optical fiber from its Wilmington, NC, facility. Spools of optical fiber are shipped in reusable plastic containers. The spool itself is also reusable, including a plastic cover that lends added protection to the fiber and spool during shipping.

A prepaid return address label is applied to each container as it leaves the facility. Empty containers, spools and covers are sent to Re-Source America Inc. (Southampton, PA), where they are cleaned and inspected. Qualified packaging material is sent back to Corning, while unusable material is recycled. To date, Corning has a customer return rate of more than 95 percent, and the company estimates that it has eliminated more than 1 million tons of packaging waste with this system.

Lennox receives some parts in returnable plastic containers, and it gets insulation materials in returnable wire baskets. In addition, the company purchases many chemicals in refillable 330-gallon plastic or metal totes instead of 55-gallon drums. "When they're empty, we send them back to the manufacturer," says Merritt. "There's no cleaning or disposal cost associated with totes, and we save money by buying in bulk. There's less handling, less waste and less chance for injuries associated with mishandling drums."

Designing Out Waste

Another way to minimize waste is to avoid generating it in the first place. Often, engineers can reduce or eliminate waste by rethinking the product design or optimizing the manufacturing process.

"There is no manufacturing process that doesn't generate a certain amount of waste," says Hachigian. "The goal during engineering is to reduce that waste as much as possible within the constraints of cost-effectiveness and available technology."

Lennox did away with a lot of packaging waste by consolidating operations, says Merritt. For example, Lennox once made condenser coils in Mississippi and shipped them north to its Iowa facility. Now, the coils are made in Iowa, too, and the company no longer has to worry about how to dispose of the shipping material.

Hewlett-Packard Co. (Palo Alto, CA) is well-known for promoting consumer recycling of toner and ink cartridges, but the company's efforts on the shop floor have gone unnoticed. Wherever possible, the company chooses recycled materials over virgin materials for its products. Styrofoam packaging material is placed into a 40-to-1 compaction machine, which turns the waste into building materials.

At HP's assembly plant in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, new equipment, materials and processes are evaluated for their environmental impact before they reach the shop floor. The plant also reduces waste by minimizing the amount of material in product packaging. For example, the width of a cardboard band used to protect a particular assembly was reduced from 6 inches to 3 inches. "It's a little thing, but that will save about $4 million per year," says Juan Berrios, environmental health and safety manager at the plant.

At Northrop Grumman's Newport News complex, a comprehensive vendor-managed inventory program has helped reduce waste. Suppliers now deliver wire, sheet metal, pipe and other components, cut to size and packaged in kits, on a just-in-time basis. In addition, orders for similar parts are grouped together, and patterns for producing parts from stock materials are configured to minimize waste. Metal shavings produced by machining are collected and sold.

In the past, Northrop would keep raw materials on hand in stock sizes. Workers would draw the materials as needed and cut them to size. Not only did that strategy require considerable inventory space, but it also generated a lot of scrap.

Unused paint is another waste that Northrop has been able to reduce through process optimization. The company developed a program to train workers how to calculate exactly how much paint they need. The paint supplier then delivers that amount just-in-time. "The program will save us more than $1 million in paint just on one aircraft carrier," predicts Thorn.

Bumps in the Road

Waste minimization projects don't always work out. Early enthusiasm for a project can give way to apathy. The market for recyclable materials can fluctuate. Vendors come and go. Environmental regulations can change.

Northrop's Blanchfield describes his company's efforts to recycle wood as "a roller coaster."

"You might think it would be easy to recycle wood, but we've had three wood recyclers go out of business on us," he recalls. "One day there's a market for the stuff; the next day there isn't. Often, the cost of recycling the wood would be higher than the disposal price."

Changing market conditions can make maintaining a recycling program difficult. "With as many employees as we have, you don't want to start and stop and start a program," Blanchfied admits. "Once you've lost momentum, it's difficult to start again."

Lennox had a similar experience with pallets. "At first, we paid someone to take our pallets," Merritt recalls. "Then we found someone who charged us less. Then we found someone to take them for free. Finally, we found someone who paid us for them."

Rockwell Collins has had some learning experiences, too. Recyclers rejected consignments of plastic that were contaminated by labeling or that contained too many different resins. The cafeteria even tried eating utensils made from biodegradable starch-based plastic, but later switched back to traditional plastics.

To ensure success, it's best to keep recycling programs simple, advises Brothersen. At Rockwell Collins, workers used to sort newspapers, magazines, books and computer paper in separate recycling bins, but compliance was less than optimal. Today, there's just one bin for office paper and one for publications. "We don't get the most money for [commingled paper], but at least it's not going to the landfill. There are fewer containers on the shop floor, and it's simpler to do," he says.

If the recycling program will be implemented at more than one facility, consistency is crucial. "Containers should look the same from one facility to the next," says Brothersen.

To keep their programs moving forward, manufacturers should celebrate their recycling successes. "Even if you only save a few hundred dollars here or there, those small successes add up," Brothersen points out.

Strictly Business?

Companies don't necessarily need the capital or the clout of Northrop Grumman or GM to begin recycling and waste minimization projects. However, regardless of company size, engineers must convince management that implementing such programs makes sense economically.

"In the worst case, a recycling program has to break even," says Northrop's Blanchfield. "We've never asked the company to subsidize recycling."

"We won't do something if it costs us money," adds GM's Hachigian. "What's amazing is that in almost every case, we have been able to achieve both an environmental benefit and a cost advantage. Waste reduction and recycling do save money."

Of course, even if waste reduction programs are strictly business decisions, clever marketers can always "spin" such choices into an effective ad campaign that celebrates the company's environmental stewardship.

Carlson recalls how GM's Saturn division created an ad that touted the environmental benefits of the automaker's decision to use returnable packaging. "The ad showed a young woman sitting on a large mound of garbage next to her new Saturn," he says. "The ad states that the mound represented the amount of trash that Saturn had diverted from landfills by using returnable packaging."

Do You Recycle?

How has your company minimized waste on the assembly line? Share your ideas with your colleagues! Send us your suggestions for waste minimization, and we'll publish the best ones in a subsequent issue of ASSEMBLY. Send your stories to Thanks!