“What we call waste is only surplus and surplus is only the starting point for new uses.”

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-of-life 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. “When 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.