Henry Ford, Industrial Ecologist or Industrial Conservationist? Waste Reduction and Recycling at the Rouge

By McCarthy, Tom | Michigan Historical Review, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Henry Ford, Industrial Ecologist or Industrial Conservationist? Waste Reduction and Recycling at the Rouge


McCarthy, Tom, Michigan Historical Review


American automakers claim to have finally gotten religion. The religion they are touting is "industrial ecology," the idea that manufacturers assume responsibility for the environmental consequences of their products by adopting product designs and manufacturing processes to minimize these impacts by prior intent rather than by dealing with unintended consequences at the behest of angry regulators and the public. (1) Like many concepts in the business world, industrial ecology passes for an innovation. Some of industrial ecology's component ideas and practices have a much longer history, however. Nowhere is the relevant earlier history more evident than in the case of Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company's famous Dearborn, Michigan, River Rouge complex during the 1920s and 1930s.

The Rouge was the greatest example of vertical integration in American 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 twenty-eight hours. (2) The magnitude and variety of industrial processes conducted at the twelve-hundred-acre site posed tremendous 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 probably carried further here than at any other industrial site in the world. (3) In fact, the zeal with which Ford's engineers pursued waste reduction at the Rouge and the scale of their efforts are remarkable even by today's standards. The Ford commitment to waste reduction at the Rouge raises two questions: whether Henry Ford and his firm should be viewed as early industrial ecologists and whether the practices pursued at the Rouge were important precursors of industrial ecology.

At the heart of industrial ecology is the concept of the product lifecycle: flows of materials and energy from the natural world are transformed into products that are used and ultimately discarded. (4) Flow was central to the thinking of Henry Ford and his plant engineers) But industrial ecologists view this process with two ends in mind. The first is to use both raw materials and energy efficiently. This means maximizing an output from a given amount of material or energy (or minimizing the inputs of either while holding output constant). The second is to minimize the negative environmental impacts from making, using, and disposing of a product. Environmental historians normally classify the first concern as pursuing conservation and the second as reducing pollution. These two motivations and the resulting positive environmental outcomes are central to industrial ecology. Keeping these two different goals in mind is also necessary if one is to understand what Henry Ford and his company were doing at the Rouge in the 1920s and 1930s and why they were doing it.

In practice waste in manufacturing may involve both the superfluous use of materials and harmful environmental impacts when the materials are discarded. In the 1920s when people spoke of "waste reduction" they almost always meant using men, machines, materials, and time more efficiently rather than reducing pollution. When they spoke of "industrial waste" they usually meant the materials discarded by a company, but this phrase did not always imply that environmental harm automatically ensued. However, the pursuit of waste reduction, even when motivated largely by the goal of efficiency or conservation, might well reduce industrial waste and, consequently, environmentally harmful pollution. The question is the extent to which these two goals--conservation and pollution reduction--animated Ford's waste-reduction practices at the Rouge.

Waste reduction and recycling at the Rouge were by-products of the Ford Motor Company's experience with mass production. All factories that transform raw materials into physical products create wastes in the form of some mixture of superfluous gases, liquids, and solids. …

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