CHATTANOOGA — "Save Our Planet!" That's what it says on the card in my hotel, and all I have to do is reuse my towel.
But in reality it will take a lot more than that — a thoroughgoing planetary makeover. Among many other things, we have to learn how to make cleaner cars, meaning not only hybrids and electrics but also cleaner manufacturing. Building the vehicle is at least 10 percent of its lifetime environmental impact, so if you can go to zero waste (as General Motors has done at half its plants, and Volkswagen is doing here in Chattanooga), you're having a big impact. They got 65,000 applications for 1,200 production jobs, but, hey, maybe they're still hiring.
The huge, 2-billion-square-foot, $1 billion VW plant will produce an as-yet unnamed sedan to replace the Passat, code-named New Mid-Sized Sedan (NMS). I saw a chassis covered in shrouds, and a sketch. But I also saw a really green manufacturing process. Half of the 6,000-acre site (a former Army TNT plant) will be preserved as open space, with nature trails.
Most of the pollution in a car plant comes from the paint shop, and that's where I got my tour. Rich Schmidt, the plant engineering manager who worked for two Japanese carmakers, says VW's process (which uses 52 robots and can paint 31 cars per hour) is by far the cleanest he's seen.
Cars will be dipped, rather than sprayed, and the process skips the primer coat and the bake oven to save 20 percent on water and chemicals. Among carmakers, this process is new — only the Mini Cooper is also painted this way. "We get more output on a smaller footprint," says Schmidt. Also cutting edge is the way VW changes colors, a process that reduces both paint and solvent use by 123,000 gallons.
But the coolest thing is what happens to waste paint. Only 80 percent of the paint actually makes it on the car, and the other 20 percent is normally diluted with 50,000 gallons of water per day. But in Chattanooga, the paint drops into dry limestone powder. Why? So it can be blended in, then sent to a cement kiln where it becomes, well, cement. Nil to the landfill.
There was a lot more of this kind of stuff — emu feathers clean dust off the cars. The white cypress wood shipping pallets are donated locally to make furniture and art projects.