The first principle of green engineering according to Anastas and Zimmerman (2003) is perhaps the most all-inclusive and for the long-term, one the most valuable of the twelve offered. It states that “Designers need to strive to ensure that all material and energy inputs and outputs are as inherently nonhazardous as possible" (p. 96).
While this may seem to be a common sense approach to creating cleaner, greener, and more sustainable industries across sectors, this is not as simple to achieve as it sounds. By nature of being an “inherent" part of the process, this means that the entire mode of production must be shifted and changed to adapt to the target of being non-hazardous.
For many plants, regardless of what they produce, this could easily require a complete retooling, redesign, and perhaps reconstruction of an existing production facility in order to meet this principle’s demands in an ideal sense. As the authors suggest, “technological and economic factors may often preclude the adoption of an alternative system design that is more inherently benign, incremental changes in circumstances can have a very significant effect on the overall system" (Anastas & Zimmerman, 2003).
In line with this incremental view of adapting to the rigorous conditions of the first principle of inherently green engineering, Subaru can be seen as rather successful. While they have not built a new facility to accommodate for every potential feature of green engineering, they have taken steps to eliminate hazardous materials, to recycle those that would otherwise becoming toxic, hazardous elements in landfills, and have been in line with the first and eleventh principles of green engineering in particular.
To become as inherently non-hazardous as possible, Subaru has eliminated materials that were once thought to be essential in the manufacture of automobiles. According to Subaru’s website, “the use of mercury, cadmium, hexavalent and chromium has been deleted from the manufacturing process and lead is only used at just 10 percent of the level of a decade ago" (Subaru, 2008). This is not only in line with the second principle of green engineering which suggests that it is much more efficient to prevent waste rather than have to worry about the clean-up costs and problems later, it is also aligned perfectly with the first principle.
By changing its inherent input and output from toxic to revised materials that are inherently less hazardous, Subaru has taken a major step forward, although this has certainly incurred costs in research, development, and production to accommodate for such deviations from standard production practices through this change in long-used materials. Their production and materials deviations have also extended beyond some of the more bulk-item raw materials to other components of production that are less massive in scale or process but that are still important to their goal to become inherently non-hazardous.
For instance, as the company’s website states, “Processes have been developed to remove plastic from laminated windscreens, so the glass can be recycled. Laminated screens previously had to be dumped" (Subaru, 2008). This combines the first, second and eleventh principles as it is inherently less toxic, creates less worry about clean-up costs through prevention, and of course, because it creates a system of recycling, which is another key component in Subaru’s recent successes in meeting some essential green goals.
One of the key components of the 11th principle of green engineering is that, “to reduce waste, components that remain functional and valuable can be recovered for reuse and/or reconfiguration" (Anastas & Zimmerman, 2003). The Subaru of Indiana Automotive plant in Indiana, which was constructed in 1989 is a zero-landfill production facility and recycles everything from the materials used in the actual production process to other objects such as light bulbs, rags, and brass pieces that used to be thrown away after being used for minor elements of the production process.
This particular branch of Subaru car manufacturing, “makes anywhere from 110,000 to more than 200,000 vehicles per year [and] adds absolutely nothing to our nation’s rapidly filling landfills" (DiPietro, 2008). The Subaru plant achieves principles of green engineering is through its effective “zero landfill" approach, which does not minimize, but completely eliminates landfill-bound waste entirely, thus is in line with the eleventh principle that looks for an afterlife of processes and byproducts. This has taken some degree of engineering to implement and has come at considerable to monetary cost, but as of 2008, “Fully 99 percent of waste from the plant is recycled, and the remaining 1 percent is turned into electricity" (DiPietro, 2008).
The eleventh principle is also visible in the more specific example of Subaru’s handling of toxic chemicals that used to find their way to landfills and now due to recycling, are being sold to companies who can make use of it. This also involves some elements of the second principle of prevention rather than treatment as instead of finding ways to take away toxicity of compounds destined for landfills, the company is preventing the problem altogether as well as being proactive about making money from waste and providing a valuable by-product. For example, “Paint sludge formerly thrown away is dried to a powder and is then shipped to a plastics manufacturer that mixed it with other plastic compounds. The end products are useful devices such as parking-lot bumpers and guardrail safety blocks that absorb impact when struck by a vehicle" (Corvallis, 2006). While one could argue that the vast amount of shipping and preparation of powdered compound does use up energy in the process and thus violates the third principle that concerns the consumption of energy during “green" processes, these are volatile chemicals and it is likely that that amount of energy aimed at taking away or reducing the toxicity before ending up dumping it as waste anyway would be equally, if not more wasteful. The company, with the slight amount of added revenue from this practice can use such proceeds to build better systems to eliminate other sources of waste. The Subaru website also suggests that just as they are offering industrial byproducts to other companies instead of sending them to landfills as potentially toxic waste, they are using similar materials from other industries such as fishing nets for covers over car engines, for instance (Subaru.com, 2008).
Subaru has made enormous strides toward becoming a green automobile manufacturing plant and has experienced increased amounts of success over successive years. In its report that named Subaru the “WasteWise" 2006 New Partner of the Year Award, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that, among several other beneficial activities, these efforts “saved an equivalent of 713,000 gallons of oil" despite some of the practical changes to create systems of large scale recycling. (EPA, 2006). By being most skilled in meeting the goals set forth in the first, second, and eleventh principles, Subaru is demonstrating through example that green engineering feats do not necessarily involve an immediate and massive paradigm shift in production materials and processes, but can and should be incremental in nature.
Anastas, P. & Zimmerman, J. (2003) Design through the 12 principles of green engineering. Environmental Science and Technology, American Chemical Society.