Last May, Volkswagen announced that it was making a $600 million global commitment to researching new ways to increase sustainability in its automotive plants.
That may seem like a bold statement for a major car manufacturer that operates plants on five continents. But for its 1,400-acre manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., which is the model of its Think Blue eco-conscious strategy, sustainability is anything but a new goal.
In June, I had the opportunity to tour the facility, which now ranks as a flagship model for sustainability efforts in other parts of the world. At the top of its list of accomplishments is its LEED Platinum certification, which it gained in 2011. Chattanooga is the first auto plant in the world to attain this mark.
It wasn’t just its use of six-inch mineral rock wool as insulating material and its use of LED exterior lighting that led to this certification, but its use of hardscape reflective materials and the expansive rainwater collection system that is used to cool the plant’s welding machines (a key component of the fabrication process) and flush toilets. It also introduced low-flow water fixtures with no-touch sensors throughout the plant so that it could reduce water usage. This one feature, the plant says, reduces its water usage by a third.
Since that time, the Chattanooga plant has expanded its effort to reduce the heat island effect by using native or adaptive plants instead of hard, artificial surfaces that can drive up temperatures and increase energy usage in Chattanooga’s warm climate. Its location seems ready-set for this extensive project, since the plant is part of a brownfields restoration project, and any exterior improvements help to further that environmental goal.
Parking is always a major consideration in a plant that has more than 2,000 employees, and Chattanooga factored this issue into its green business plan as well. To encourage smart transportation use, it has created a priority parking system that rewards the use of vans and carpools and low-emission and fuel-smart vehicles. Cyclists who pump the 5-mile distance from Chattanooga get premium bike storage in a secure area a short walk from the plant.
But at the heart of any successful sustainability program is its recycle and reuse initiatives, which would seem to be essential to any automotive plant that wants to reduce its carbon footprint. It employs a multi-stage recycle/reuse program that benefits from recycled non-hazardous construction and demolition materials, as well as post-industrial content. And of course, key to this effort is its easily accessible (and frequent) recycle areas and help to ensure that employees and guests use those measures.
I found it interesting that Volkswagen invited reporters to tour the factory not to publicize what it has already done, but what it wants to do in the future. For some businesses, implementing sound recycle and reuse programs and creating a sustainable business model in which 12.5 percent of its energy comes from its own renewable energy (in this case, a 66-acre solar park), and implementing green methods to supply the rest of the energy might be the end goal. For the Volkswagen apparently, it’s just the start.
By 2020, the company wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent, and at the same time, increase its energy efficiency by 25 percent. The Chattanooga plant has been earmarked as an example of how the 75+ year-old automotive company can increase sustainability, particularly in four of its oldest European plants.
It will be interesting to see what strategies it takes home to its German factories. Chattanooga’s greatest success seems to be its ability to meld lessons learned abroad with its environmental achievements in the warm, subtropical climate of Tennessee. And, I suspect there will be many more accomplishments to come in future years.
Photos courtesy of Volkswagen Group of America
Photo of automotive assembler by Jackson Riley Parker
Disclosure: Volkswagen paid for the transportation and accommodation for the purposes of the tour.
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.