While Henry Ford’s assembly lines were becoming famous, by far the most dramatic post-consumer recycling activity at the gigantic Rouge facility near Detroit, were Ford’s disassembly lines designed to take apart junked automobiles. Ford ran the program intermittently between 1930 and World War II.
At the urging of Henry Ford himself, the company initially toyed with the idea of taking back and refurbishing worn-out Fords only, but eventually settled for taking apart both its own and other manufacturers’ vehicles for scrap. Ford did not assume an obligation to take back or repurchase its automobiles at the end of their useful lives in order to reclaim and recycle materials. Rather, Ford touted the operation as a contribution to highway safety and ridding the landscape of abandoned automobiles. Naturally, removing old vehicles from the road was an indirect stimulus to new car sales. But Ford also needed large quantities of scrap for steelmaking at the Rouge, the capacity for which the company expanded dramatically in the 1930s.
But the disassembly line was really an experiment in the economics of salvage. The company hoped that a large-scale operation would permit labor and operating efficiencies that could not be realized by local junkyards and scrap dealers. It also wanted to eliminate profits paid to junkmen and scrap dealers as auto scrap made its way through the usual commercial chain from the used car lot back to the steelmaker.
Ford began its experiment by agreeing to buy junkers for $20 a piece (less a small shipping fee) from its Detroit area dealers up to the number of new cars the dealer purchased from the factory, provided the vehicle had a battery and tires. The trailers that delivered new cars to the dealers were used to bring the junked vehicles back to the Rouge for disassembly. The disassembly at the Rouge plant was set up so that once the vehicles had been stripped of everything that was not steel or iron, the hulks could be fed directly into one of the openhearth furnaces as a scrap charge for making new steel. The open hearths used at the time required a charge mix that was 55% scrap and 45% pig iron.
Utilizing everything but the sound of the horn Men on the Ford disassembly line first drained the junked cars of their gasoline, oil and grease—all saved and recycled. The cars then moved along conveyors where the workers stripped them of their tires, batteries, headlight lenses and bulbs, spark plugs, floorboards, glass, leather, cloth, upholstery stuffing, radiators, and non-ferrous metal parts.
The Rouge Salvage Sales Department reconditioned and then sold at a discount from the regular parts list serviceable Model T parts, such as tires, tubes, spark plugs, headlights, steering gears, glass, carburetors and generators. The department sold the better tires as used tires. Ford sheared the worn tires into sections and then sold them to rubber recyclers.
Ford maintenance men even sized and cut the larger sections of glass for use as windowpanes around the Rouge plant! They sent the rest of the scrapped glass to the Rouge glass plant for re-melting. They used the reclaimed leather for aprons, upholstery for hand pads, and floorboards for crate tops, plus baled and sold the cotton and hair from the upholstery stuffing. They carefully separated the nonferrous metals, such as the aluminum in hubcaps, the copper in ignition wire, the brass in oil cups, and the bronze in brushings, by metal type and sold it for scrap. At the end of these lines, a 22-ton press crushed flat the remaining wood, iron and steel in the body and chassis, as a third moving line conveyed it to an open-hearth furnace for re-melting.
The furnace simply consumed any remaining wood. The entire process took about a half hour for each car. “It was a very spectacular job,” Ford production chief Charles Sorenson later recalled.
Cars were not the only things being disassembled at the Rouge. One hundred seventy-nine merchant marine vessels were purchased from the War Department in 1925. The ships were part of a fleet of “lakers” decommissioned by Washington after World War I and were sitting rusting for years in seaports along the East Coast until Ford acquired them at a cut rate.
The ships were towed to Dearborn, stripped of brass, copper, piping, wires and wood, and then sent through a massive half-mile-long aquatic disassembly line. The line was fitted with wrecking cranes, industrial torches and giant shears, each charged with shredding a different ship section. Boilers and engines were refurbished and used elsewhere, and cabins became tool sheds and stockrooms. Railcars rolled the sheared steel to the Rouge’s pig-cast building where it was melted in enormous blast furnaces and shipped to the foundry. It took less than a week to render what took months to build, leaving only a shadow of “oil and rust on the water.” “We salvage everything, even men” A description of the Ford waste reduction and recycling activities would be incomplete without the mention of one last application of the idea.
“We salvage everything, even men,”
Henry Ford claimed in the early 1920s. Ford often staffed its salvage operations with physically and mentally-challenged people— employees the company bluntly termed ‘‘sub-standard men.’’ As Henry Ford put it, these men were ‘‘salvaged in the process of salvaging.’’ The company, it is clear, viewed this, not just as charity, but as a novel and commendable further extension of the idea of waste reduction.
Attacking waste in the use of manpower, machines, materials and time was at the heart of the company’s industrial activity, and waste reduction and recycling received the fervent support of Ford himself. As The Ford Industries newsletter put it in 1924, “In the Ford Motor Company waste is regarded as almost criminal.” The sentiment was Henry Ford’s, and it was a point of pride that the company widely publicized.
Was the world’s richest man more concerned with saving money … or simply preventing waste? The recollections of Henry Ford’s associates consistently indicated that he pushed waste reduction programs even when he knew they were not profitable. “I don’t think the economical point always interested Mr. Ford,” his personal secretary Ernest G. Liebold recalled. “Mr. Ford would insist on the by-products being salvaged,” the firm’s purchasing manager Albert M. Wibel added, “We would never throw anything away regardless of whether it was economical or not.”
Was Henry Ford simply indulging a personal obsession or was he struggling to accomplish something more with his waste reduction and recycling programs? The evidence suggests a bit of both. Ford loved the outdoors, but there is no evidence that this provided the motivation for the company’s waste reduction activities. Ford himself did not entirely lack what people in the late 20th century considered environmental sensitivity. “It is not right, he said ‘to put a layer of dust [from smokestack pollution] over the surrounding country and spoil its trees and plants.’”
Ford’s waste reduction activities certainly produced tangible environmental benefits, but Ford’s chief motivation in waste reduction was not reducing pollution. In fact, any beneficial environmental impact in the form of reduced pollution was simply an incidental by-product of the waste reduction activities.
It is hard to overlook the extent and zeal with which waste reduction was pursued at the Rouge and elsewhere in the Ford Motor Company during the 1920s. The degree to which these activities were publicized, the fact that many activities known to be unprofitable were pursued on an open-ended basis, and the lack of whole-hearted support from the company’s plant engineers, all suggest that Henry Ford’s personal obsession with the matter is the single best explanation for Ford’s waste reduction and recycling programs.