Take-back, waste reduction and recycling at the Rouge
Throughout the 1920s, Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge managers pioneered techniques of industrial recycling. Henry Ford, the richest man in the world, was obsessed with eliminating waste and finding as many ways as possible to use nature’s bounty. For instance, Ford—in England to promote his new Model A in 1928—was told that a garbage dump in Dagenham, Essex, had been burning for over a thousand years. He proposed building a powerhouse on the site to transform its heat into steam to run his nearby factory. “This dump goes back to prehistoric times,” he said. “These fires have been burning away, wasted absolutely, all these centuries. I would like to see them working for man.”

In interviews with former Ford and Rouge managers reported in the New York Times in 1933, one stated, “Mr. Ford abhors waste and will spend any amount of money to avoid it.” These interviews and others conducted for the Ford Motor Company Archives in the early and mid- 950s fully bear out this claim. 
They are full of stories about Henry Ford’s waste-cutting zeal. Rouge plant engineer George R. Thompson related one of the best. Thoroughly imbued with the Ford salvage ethos, Thompson searched for something to do with the coke breeze accumulating around the Rouge coke ovens before he hit on what he thought was the perfect solution—using the breeze as railroad track ballast around the plant instead of buying cinders. Pleased with his decision, Henry Ford’s reaction to his idea was not quite what he expected. (Coke breeze is the very small-sized residue from the screening of heat-treated coke.)

As Thompson recalled, “Mr. Ford came along one morning and said, ‘Let’s take a walk up the track here a piece.’ We walked up the track and he pointed down to this black sandy-looking material and he said, ‘What’s that?’ ‘Oh, Mr. Ford,’ I said, ‘That’s coke breeze. There is no use for it. There is no place to use it. We are saving 75 cents a cubic yard that we paid for cinders.” He said, “Young man, that coke breeze represents energy. If you people down here at the plant aren’t smart enough to know how to get the energy out of that breeze, I hope it buries all of you. Why don’t you burn it in the furnace?” I said, “I have inquired about that, but they say it is so light that the draft takes it right up the stack.”

He said, “You tell them that I said not to throw that away and to find some use for it. Eventually, they did find a way of burning it. Mr. Ford was quite right about it. It was useful stuff, we just didn’t know how to use it.” 
Zealous Waste
Reduction Efforts If the larger operations at the Rouge showcased Ford’s planning for waste reduction, the smaller salvage activities demonstrated the company’s zeal. The reuse of tools provides a prime example. “Drills, which are worn to their shortest useable length for a given diameter are reground to smaller diameters so as to permit re-use to a shorter length on some other operation,” the salvage manager Middleton observed, providing a sense of the lengths to which the company went in pursuit of waste reduction. “After this has been done as often as is practical, the drill may be reworked to an entirely different tool, such as an end milling cutter, used in one of the tool rooms.

Finally, when no further use can be found for it as a tool, the carbon steel shank is cut off for re- elting stock at the foundry and the high speed steel cutting end is re-used as melting stock at the Electric Furnace Steel Plant.” 
Similar examples abounded. The salvage staff converted paint cans into mop pails. They rethreaded 5,000 discarded nuts and bolts each day and reworked worn machine belting into lifebelts for window washers. 
The Ford zeal for waste reduction led it into additional areas for post-consumer recycling. In 1929, the company took on garbage disposal for the city of Dearborn in an effort to produce industrial alcohol and fertilizer, an undertaking that ultimately proved unsuccessful. Nonetheless, Ford used the garbage as a fuel and continued the operation for a number of years. The salvage staff simply cooked the garbage to provide steam power for the smaller Powerhouse Number 3 at the Rouge. Then they pressed it, which produced oil that was sold as fat. Finally, they dried the garbage and added it to the coal in the coke ovens as a fuel. This operation, which processed 40 tons of garbage a day, lasted until after World War II. 
Re-use of Packing Crates
Even after the introduction of the all-steel body in the mid-1920s, the automobile industry remained a prodigious consumer of lumber, primarily for packing and shipping. The company’s goal was to re-use all the wood that came into the plant for shipments going out before resorting to the use of new lumber. To do this Ford engineers developed machines to automatically pull nails from the wood, salvaging 75 kegs of old nails a day to re-melt.

This effort to re-use the wood, which eventually led to the construction of three separate wooden crate factories to serve different parts of the Rouge, accomplished a great deal, but some scrap wood and sawdust remained. The Ford people fired the cupolas in the Rouge foundries with this scrap wood and sold some to employees as kindling. To utilize the remainder, Ford built a paper mill at the Rouge to make cardboard and corrugated paper for use in its vehicles and for shipping.

In addition to wood scrap, salvage staff collected and sorted 50,000 pounds of waste paper each day at the Rouge and Ford’s other Detroit area facilities. They sent the desirable grades to the Rouge paper mill to be made into cardboard. The company even experimented with using this cardboard to make trunk lids on their automobiles. 
The Rouge Salvage Department also worked with the company’s suppliers to design containers intended not only to protect parts and economize on railroad freight charges, but containers that could be returned to the vendor for re-use or used by Ford for another purpose. These containers included steel drums, glass jars, cable reels, wooden boxes, crates and skids; all collected and returned to the vendors by the Rouge Returnable Container Department. Ford employees knocked down cardboard cartons that came into the plant and returned them to suppliers for multiple re-use. When the cartons no longer served their original purpose the Ford people cut them down for use as packing cardboard. 
It is doubtful that any large firm in the USA in the 1920s and 1930s paid as much attention to minimizing waste in shipping and packing materials as did Ford. Interestingly, almost a century later, Ford’s Material Planning & Logistics group, working with the Georgia Institute of Technology, designed an overseas shipping container made of polypropylene plastic that afterward can be ground up and used in plastic auto parts, such as F-150 splash shields. The container is environmentally sustainable for a couple of reasons. It eliminates cardboard boxes; then, because the containers are designed to hold more parts, fewer overseas shipments are necessary, reducing greenhouse gases from cargo ships, trains and trucks.

Henry Ford reportedly used a similar recycling process in the early 1900s. According to the story, “Ford shipped wheels for his early Model T truck in carefully designed wooden crates,” said Richard DeMuro, director, Ford Asia-Pacific Material Planning & Logistics. “After shipping, the wood from the crate was cleverly used in the bed liner of the truck. In the same way in 2010, we’ve developed a shipping container that can be recycled into vehicle parts.” Old Henry would have been proud that his early efforts were still being advanced roughly a century later!
This article is adapted from Thomas McCarthy, ‘‘Henry Ford, Industrial Conservationist? Take- ack, 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.