Many of the ideas and practices of
industrial ecology are not new. Nowhere was
this more apparent than in the extensive
waste reduction and recycling programs
implemented by Henry Ford and the Ford
Motor Company at the famous River Rouge
complex during the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps
the most noteworthy of these programs was
an automobile disassembly line for end-oflife
vehicles, although the lengths to which
the Ford Salvage Department went to reuse
materials generated from their vast manufacturing
complex were truly extraordinary.
Ford’s efforts occurred in the larger context
of the US industrial conservation movement,
which the company epitomized while at the
same time standing apart from it. Ford conducted
what was likely the greatest industrial
waste reduction and recycling program
undertaken anywhere in the world during
the first half of the 20th century. When the
company built a disassembly line to study
the economics of a voluntary take-back
program for its own and others automobiles,
the company stood at the very threshold of
Design for Recycling (DFR). The Ford waste
reduction and recycling programs, as well
as its take-back experiment, present an important
early case study in the difficulties of
realizing goals that one day would be at the
heart of industrial ecology.
The Rouge complex was the greatest example
of vertical integration in US industrial
history, a facility where, as Ford’s publicists
bragged, raw materials were turned into
finished automobiles driven from the final
assembly line in just 28 hours. The magnitude
and variety of industrial processes
conducted at the 1,200-acre site posed
extraordinary waste disposal challenges for
Ford’s plant engineers.
Yet, during the 1920s and 1930s, one of the
principal goals of industrial ecology—the
design of raw material and energy flows to
minimize waste in manufacturing—was
carried further here than probably any other
industrial site in the world. In fact, the zeal
and the scale with which Ford’s engineers
pursued waste reduction at the Rouge is
remarkable even by today’s standards.
Waste reduction and recycling at the Rouge
were by-products of Ford’s experience with
mass production. All factories that transformed
raw materials into physical products
created wastes in the form of some mixture
of superfluous gases, liquids and solids.
These needed to be moved away from the
people and machinery involved in production
in order for the factory to function.
But wastes, and especially solid wastes, also
presented an opportunity. When the quantities
were large enough or valuable enough,
Ford could recover some of the cost of production
by either reducing the amount or
by recycling the residual materials for reuse
or external sale. With its focus on reducing
the price of its cars, such opportunities were
not lost on the firm’s plant managers and
engineers. ‘‘Even a microscopic saving,” as
one Ford publication in the early 1920s put
it, “assumes impressive proportions when
multiplied by a million or two.”
Ford’s formal waste reduction and salvage
commitment began at Highland Park in
1916. But the Rouge, built largely between
1917 and 1937, offered the company its most
substantial opportunity to design production
processes with waste reduction and
reuse in mind. Here, as part of the company’s
effort to create the ultimate modern, rational
factory, the company’s waste reduction and
salvage activities reached their zenith.
“Picking up and reclaiming the scrap left
over after production is a public service,”
Henry Ford observed, “but planning so that
there will be no scrap is a higher public
service.” Consequently, the Rouge was
planned, built and modified with waste
(and especially solid
waste) reduction
as a major consideration.
certain operations
produce large amounts
of a certain kind of scrap
which is reused in production,”
Ford manager
L.D. Middleton wrote in
the late 1930s, “the same
consideration is given to the handling of this
scrap as would be given to laying out the
various steps in the operations themselves.
Consequently, conveyors are used and
railroad facilities supplied for handling the
major items which have to be forwarded to
the other building[s] for reuse.”
Middleton ran the Rouge General Salvage
Department, whose 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 claimed that in 1925,
$20 million in savings were generated from
salvage, a staggering figure that would
translate to roughly $250 million today.
Some of the impressive lengths to which the
company went in their salvage efforts will
be explored in the next issue of ASSET 2.0.
ASSET 2.0 Vol. 5 : 2010
Henry Ford
the First IR Pra ctitioner ?
Take-back, waste reduction and
recycling at the Rouge
This article is adapted from Thomas McCarthy,
‘‘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.