Maintaining sustainability at BMW Manufacturing

By Kevin Campbell, Senior Edito December 13, 2006

Sustainability is one of the most prevalent buzzwords being used in the manufacturing community today. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines sustainability as, “of, relating to or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” At BMW’s U.S. factory in Spartanburg County in upstate South Carolina, sustainability is at the forefront of the manufacturing process.

“We have eight indicators that we track every month,” said Briggs Hamilton, section manager, environmental services at BMW. “We are measuring water consumption, waste water discharge, air emissions, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, solid wastes and chemical waste and then toxic releases.” Not coincidentally, those eight indicators are defined by the environmental agencies and used to identify high-level polluters, information that becomes part of the public record, Hamilton said. And because of that, BMW makes sure its employees understand how conscientious it is of its impact on the environment.

Aside from learning regulations on safety, the manufacturing process and other rules the company adheres to, new employees find out about BMW’s commitment to sustainability. “The first thing we do when somebody is hired is that they go through orientation,” Hamilton said.

“One of the things they learn is how we value our environmental performance,” Hamilton commented. “We tell them we are in the community, and we want you to treat your job just like you do your home. Do your job just like you live next door to the plant. I’ve always thought that’s a good thing to tell people.

“They understand that the things they do here can have an impact on somebody else. And that’s a big part of how we are able to minimize things,” he added.

In addition to the tracking of wastes and the training of employees, BMW empowers its workforce to lend its hand in improving sustainability. Employees are encouraged to conceive new ideas for reducing waste and chemical usage, as well as to find alternatives to chemicals currently in use, according to Hamilton.

In a unique case, BMW has implemented an alternative use for a chemical. And interestingly enough, it has turned the plant into a supplier of sorts.

While the various paints that BMW uses on its cars are water-borne, the final coat — the clearcoat — is a solvent-borne coating. Hamilton explained that to keep the clearcoat nozzles from clogging, BMW uses a 100% VOC purge solvent. Because of the flashpoint of the purge solvent, the EPA considers it a hazardous waste. Once handled at the plant as a hazardous waste — because it had to be — BMW has discovered a way to reuse the solvent.

“What we were able to do about a year and a half ago was find a customer for the purge solvent that we use, as is,” Hamilton said. “You are not allowed to do anything to the material or else you are treating hazardous waste. The EPA doesn’t let you make it friendly again. They want you to collect it and dispose of it appropriately, in accordance with the law.

“However, if the material you use can be taken in its form by someone else and used as a raw material — as a product — then it’s never discarded, so it never becomes a waste. We were able to find somebody who is actually using our purge solvent. As such, we eliminated our largest hazardous waste stream.” According to BMW, the repurposed solvents are shipped to a buyer in Ohio for use in removing chemicals from the insides of tanker trucks and rail cars.

“Solvents mainly come from a petroleum base,” Hamilton added. “If you can eliminate the purchase of a new solvent by another company by providing our material, that’s some petroleum that won’t have to go to making that new solvent. That’s really sustainability when you think about it.”