Ford Motor Company manager L.D. Middleton ran the General Salvage Department of the mammoth River Rouge facility in the 1920s and ‘30s. His duties were, in his words: “The advancement of the fundamental principles of waste control throughout the plant; the elimination or reduction of waste wherever possible; and finding proper uses for waste materials within the plant. Its activity deals with metals of all kinds, lumber, oils, and greases, building materials, textiles, leather, rubber, tools, glass, paper, equipment, and obsolete materials of all kinds.”
Henry Ford himself abhorred waste of any kind and once remarked, “What we call waste is only surplus and surplus is only the starting point for new uses.” Although Ford’s Rouge waste reduction and recycling activities were divided into four categories: by-products, salvage, energy efficiency, and post-consumer recycling; Ford’s own descriptions of its waste reduction activities at the time usually employed only the first two terms.
By-products were waste materials that arose as a consequence of primary production— that with further processing (and expense) could be sold profitably outside the company. These activities were, in fact, separate non-automotive businesses where the firm made an ongoing commitment to market the materials. For example, in making coke from coal for the Rouge blast furnaces Ford also produced coke oven gas, tar, ammonium sulphate and benzol. By design, the first two items were used as fuels in various operations around the Rouge. Ammonium sulphate, a fertilizer, and benzol, a fuel that could be mixed with gasoline and used in internal combustion engines, were sold to the public. The production of iron from iron ore, limestone, and coke also yielded blast furnace slag.
To eliminate the cost of disposing of 125 tons of this a day, Ford simply built an enormous cement plant at the Rouge. Ford’s engineers designed a process that sprayed the molten slag with cold water to cool and granulate it to the size of coarse salt. They then pumped it as a slurry under hydraulic pressure through 1,300 foot pipelines to a special plant to make Portland cement. The plant had the capacity to produce 1,000 barrels a day, with Ford using about a quarter of the cement in its own construction activities, selling the balance on the open market.
Using every part of the tree except the shade
After the company purchased a half million acres of timberland on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the early 1920s, Ford built an extensive wooden parts and by-products processing operation at Iron Mountain, about 100 miles from its forests. In some respects this facility encompassed the company’s most remarkable set of fully integrated waste reduction activities. Iron Mountain included a five-story chemical laboratory, and as at the Rouge, Iron Mountain managers and chemists pursued a restless quest to recycle all waste products.
Using “every part of the tree except the shade” as historian Tom McCarthy puts it, the Iron Mountain facility produced $11,000 worth of value every day from mill waste. The value of this waste would translate to about $45 million annually in 2010 dollars. The variety was impressive, including 125 pounds of acetate line, one-fifth of the America’s total production of methyl alcohol, antifreeze, artificial leather and 15 gallons of tar, oil and creosote.
Kingsford Charcoal. Sawdust, underbrush, branches, wood chips and cull lumber—that is, defective logs pulled from piles of otherwise serviceable timber—were turned into charcoal “briquettes” (which today continues to be sold under the brand name Kingsford, named after E.G. Kingsford, a distant relative of Henry Ford who served as the manager of the briquette operation). For years the charcoal was sold only through the Ford dealerships. The Model T contained about 225 board feet of hardwood for frames and floorboards. When Iron Mountain opened in August 1924, Ford moved the making of wooden parts there from Highland Park. The new facility provided 115 million board feet of lumber a year in capacity, roughly half the company’s annual needs.
The goal in moving production from Detroit to the forests was to reduce long-distance freight charges on moving green lumber south. Roughly 40% of the weight of green lumber was water (about a ton of water in every thousand board feet), which increased the cost of freight on that part of every board that ended up as scrap and not an automobile part. So instead of following the usual practice of cutting boards from logs, letting the boards dry, and then cutting parts from them, Ford cut the 20+ wooden parts for the Model T directly from the logs and then dried them in 58 drying kilns. This step allowed Ford to cut more parts from each tree, reducing waste by 35%–50%. The operation then converted the much-reduced remaining scrap wood into charcoal and methyl (i.e., wood) alcohol, as well as numerous other chemical by-products marketed to the public.
What little remaining scrap or sawdust was left was used as fuel to create heat for the drying kilns and to provide the plant’s power. Ford told the public in an institutional ad that ran in 1924 in the Saturday Evening Post that the efforts to save wood were “the Ford Motor Company’s contribution to national forestry conservation.”
Early Beginnings of Investment Recovery–scrap metals lead the way
Salvage—the term that Ford plant engineers and publicists used then for what people in the late 20th century eventually called recycling— generally involved waste materials reclaimed from the manufacturing process for re-use inside the company without substantial further processing beyond collection and separation by material type. Ford also sold salvaged materials outside the company—a reported $4 million in 1924, for example. But although this would amount to roughly $50 million today, these sales generally were ad hoc in nature.
At the Rouge, the most important salvage activities, measured by both weight and value, involved metals. After the advent of the closed, all-steel body in the mid-1920s, the amount of metal in automobiles increased. Since so many Rouge departments produced scrap metal, the General Salvage Department assumed responsibility for reclaiming it and maintained storage areas for ferrous (iron-based) and non-ferrous metals. Reflecting its extensive use in automobiles, steel and iron—both by weight and volume— constituted most of the scrap metal reclaimed at the Rouge. The plant’s salvage system collected and returned more than 600 tons of steel ‘home’ scrap to the furnaces each day! However, many non-ferrous metals had a value per unit of weight much greater than iron or steel. As a consequence, the Ford salvage people also collected and re-used copper, brass, aluminum, zinc, lead, tin, babbitt, cadmium, mercury and silver.
Next Issue: Ford’s unique re-use for packing crates and an amazing zeal for waste reduction.
This article is adapted from Thomas McCarthy’s ‘‘Henry Ford, Industrial Conservationist? Take- back, waste reduction and recycling at the Rouge”; Progress in Industrial Ecology–An International Journal, Vol. 3, No. 4. Other source material derived from Greg Grandin’s FORLANDIA, The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, 2009.