Green City Diaries: Investing in sustainability

In 2005, the Detroit Diesel plant, a heavy duty diesel engine manufacturing facility near Rouge Park, was declared "functionally obsolete" by a visiting assessor. Daimler AG (then DaimlerChrysler), which had recently purchased the almost 70 year old facility, considered shuttering it.

A concerted effort on the part of the plant's employees, however, including workers, managers and engineers, convinced Daimler otherwise. "We stood up," environmental engineer Chris Templeton told me, "and said, 'We are not going to be another facility to close.' We came up with a gameplan, presented it to Daimler, and said, 'This is what we can do as an organization. Please don't make this another story about another Detroit plant closing.' And we're still here."

Not only is Detroit Diesel, which employees around 2,000 people, still here -- it's growing. When President Obama visited Detroit in December, he stopped by the plant to announce a new $100 million investment by Daimler, which will add two new production lines and 115 new jobs, transforming the facility into a complete power train manufacturing center.

Detroit Diesel's continuing journey from "functionally obsolete" to robust and growing provides a fascinating and illuminating look at industrial sustainability in Detroit. A culture of sustainable thinking and action on all levels of the organization, from managers and engineers to hourly UAW workers, has helped steer the company away from obsolescence and toward a more secure, promising, and environmentally conscious future.

This is a story not told often enough in Detroit, which is supposed to be "post-industrial" -- a story about how the industry that's still here is changing.

Detroit Diesel's sustainable efforts include an EPA award-winning brownfield cleanup project, a dramatic increase in reuse and recycling (compare the 5,482 tons of material, excluding metals and oils, recycled in 2012 with the 158 tons recycled in 2004), and the decision to send recyclable materials to Michigan facilities for processing. The company has transformed an executive parking lot into a greenspace for all employees to use, and a concern with continuously improving energy efficiency, both in the plant itself and in the engines it produces, is a top priority.

Employees use bikes to get around the 3 million square foot facility, and the glass showcases used to display the various green awards the company has received are repurposed cabinets. (Somebody in the organization was going to throw them away, but environmental engineer Karen Goryl saw them in the garbage and knew just what she could do with them.)

I could go on, because there's more to tell, but suffice it to say: sustainability touches virtually every aspect of work at Detroit Diesel, and workers at all levels are regularly looking for ways to reduce the company's environmental impact.

To get a better understanding of what this kind of holistic, industrial sustainable thinking looks like from the ground level, I visited the facility and talked to three employees about their work: Chris, the environmental engineer, Paul Tousignant, a controls engineer, and Vito Randazzo, a material truck driver who's responsible for collecting and sorting recyclables.

Let's start with Chris, who is especially interested in discussing Detroit Diesel's recycling decisions, decisions which led the company to achieve landfill-free status in 2012.

The choice to partner with Michigan companies to recycle materials at an industrial scale, he explains, hasn't always been easy, and involves maintaining relationships with several different recycling operations. It would have been easier to ship to other, established "one stop shopping" facilities elsewhere in the Midwest, but then, as he put it, "The impact you're making by recycling is diminished by the distance you're traveling. I'm recycling X amount of plastic, but what am I putting back into the environment in terms of greenhouse gases?"

One relationship that Chris tells me Detroit Diesel has built around recycling (or, more accurately, upcycling) is a remarkable example of cradle to cradle design, a way of thinking about industrial relationships in terms of mutually sustaining business ecosystems that minimize environmental impact. Detroit Diesel buys something called rolled filter media from Preferred Filter Recycling (PFR), another local company. The filter media is used in a variety of machines at the plant, after which it is returned to PFR.

At that point, through PFR's own relationship with another company, the media is cleaned and turned into absorbent pads that are then sold back to Detroit Diesel. After the pads have been used to clean oil or coolant spills at Detroit Diesel, they go back to PFR, and they are cleaned and recycled again for use as new absorbent pads. It's a closed cycle of continuous reuse that vastly reduces material waste and benefits all the companies involved, as well as the natural environment. "Ultimately," Chris says, "what we want to do is get these things out of landfills."

For controls engineer Paul Tousignant, who oversees engine block and cylinder head machining in the oldest part of the plant (the rest has been completely modernized), sustainable thinking means figuring out how to improve the energy efficiency of the out-of-date machines, some of which are half a city block long, and the processes that guide their operation.

Paul's first step was to learn to see the machines from an energy savings standpoint. He walked the two production lines he's responsible for maintaining as if for the first time, noticing "low hanging fruit," as he put it, problems like air, coolant, and hydraulic leaks that were all relatively easy to fix.

Next, he considered more complex problems having to do with machine and lighting shutdown procedures. Before he began his efforts, machines ran continuously, even when not in active use (during shift changes, for example), and lights were left on all the time. His work has resulted in "cooling conservation," where coolant flow stops automatically if a machine is idle for more than 15 minutes, and the implementation of more frequent machine, fan, and lighting shutdowns.

The new shutdown procedures, which are necessarily more involved than just flipping a switch, have been well received by machine operators and their supervisors, and Paul says that periodic audits confirm that they are being followed.

He agrees with Chris Templeton, who tells me that none of the engineers' decisions would result in meaningful changes if the hourly UAW workers responsible for implementing them were not on board. "You never know how change is going to be perceived," Paul says, "but we have received complete and enthusiastic cooperation from the UAW."

Surely one of the most enthusiastic UAW workers at Detroit Diesel is Vito Randazzo, who has been with the company for about 25 years and is getting ready to retire. Vito drives a small truck around the plant, hitching together what are called gondolas (essentially huge waste bins on four wheels), delivering them to waste compactors, and separating and disposing of the materials inside. He collects gondolas full of cardboard to be recycled and gondolas full of trash (mostly food waste, which is sent to the Detroit incinerator). Other drivers collect bins full of plastic and take them to a separate plastics processing area.

Vito admits that getting everyone on the floor to cooperate fully with the recycling program hasn't always been easy, especially at the beginning, and he believes the program could be improved. "When people open boxes of parts, they don't always separate the cardboard from the plastic like they're supposed to. They say they don't have time, or they don't do it because they saw somebody else not doing it. So then we have to pick up the slack."

But, he says, things have come a long way in the five years since he was first asked to take on recycling as an additional duty to his usual waste disposal work.

"I wondered, when I first got into this department, why they didn't recycle. When you're not recycling, you're not really aware of what you're throwing away. There's a feeling of guilt, especially with the plastic. Poor Mother Earth! That stuff will never go away. It's such a waste. I'm a firm believer, from way back. I was brought up by my dad to believe that you don't waste. If you could reuse it, why would you just bury it?"

It's a transformative question, the kind that everyone who works at Detroit Diesel is both encouraged and empowered to keep in mind.

Green City Diaries, a co-production of Model D and the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library, is about the everyday decisions of Detroiters at home and work that make our city a more sustainable place. To suggest a story idea or respond to what you read, contact us here.

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at
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