Wednesday, 31 January 2001 09:00

Shops profit from being environmentally responsible

Written by Dick Strom

A friend who once drove a bread-route told of a true incident involving one of his customers of former days who was the proprietor of an old country store with the typical outhouse alongside. One day, as the storekeeper sat in his privy leisurely finishing a cigar while reading a newspaper, he dropped the cigar butt into the depths below. In an explosive flash, he was propelled through the privy's wall and deposited on the nearby road, black and blue and, shall we say, exposed. Seems a backyard mechanic, employing disposal methods common to that era, had dumped several gallons of stale gasoline down this outhouse. In addition to public exposure, today the consequences of waste disposal impropriety often include serious fines, restitution and even imprisonment. 

Accepting environmental responsibility

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Public acceptance of environmental responsibility has been a slow process. Not long ago in my county a shipyard built a steam plant designed to be fueled primarily by incinerating all the garbage from three large neighboring counties. It would have been a clean burning, efficient, mutually profitable means of trash disposal and source of steam, but my county's commissioners nixed it, forcing the shipyard to fuel entirely with other fuels, while these three counties continue buying and filling new landfills.

Hanford Nuclear Reservation, toxic waste dump for the world, isn't far from my home, and Eagle Harbor, at one time on the EPA's list of ten most polluted bodies of water, is within three miles of my shop (so much for the "Pristine Northwest" myth).

Thinking green

But the times are changing, and with them the way you and I will do business. If you harbor doubts that everyone around you is becoming environmentally conscious ask yourself, when was the last time a customer questioned the "environmental charge" line on your estimate? Like it or not, "thinking green" will become a fact of your life and mine. Remembering that money is still the supreme motivator of the auto repair industry, consider the following.

Many shops have found ways to turn ecological mandates into opportunities that increase, rather than deplete, their bottom line. A workable recycling/environmental program entitles you to profit from your efforts by advertising them to your customers. In our office is a framed list of the waste products we regularly recycle, and the good will that list brings is priceless. Recently while computing an estimate, the potential customer's eyes focused on an "Earth Day" award we received for business recycling. After briefly describing our efforts, she stated that if we are that concerned about the environment, we had her business, and that she'd also tell her friends about our program. Thinking and advertising "green" has gotten the business of many over the years.

Saving money by thinking green

Though our shop production has increased significantly over the past 10 years, we've managed to reduce the amount of our land-fill waste to half what it was back then, a savings of around $2000/year in garbage service, by making some simple changes. Remember that one man's trash is another man's treasure. Many of the products we typically view as expensive wastes are profitable employment to others. Free information is available from local environment-conscious organizations concerning steps you can take to reduce your trash output while not eroding your bottom line.

Make your environmental efforts employee-friendly. A key to a workable, efficient shop environmental plan is to designate separated areas for accumulation of wastes such as cardboard, scrapmetal, aluminum, tires, batteries, and the like, as close to the point of origin as possible.

Try to establish exclusive agreements with contract haulers. For instance, a hauler might remove all your sheet metal for free if you give him all the aluminum and good stuff. Shop around for the best deal.

Make sure your haulers are legally disposing of your wastes.

Years ago, a Northwest shop owner who entrusted the wrong person with disposal of his paint wastes was fined several hundred thousand dollars, and spent two years in prison for hazardous waste dumping.

Seriously research the reputation of your hazardous materials and recyclable waste haulers, and keep each hazardous waste manifest on file. "Cradle to grave" hazardous waste liability often extends, far beyond the grave of the perpetrator, to whoever inherits or buys out the business, which could taint its future profit potential.

Buy batteries from dealers who require a core in exchange. Interstate, among others, sells batteries on an exchange basis; for each battery you purchase, they require a core. They assume the liability for legal disposal; you get prompt removal of leaky cores; our landfills and watersheds get a break… everybody wins.

Recycle packing materials

white foam plastic bumper wrappers, white and brown wrapping paper, padding materials, styrofoam "peanuts," and the like. We keep a large cardboard box near our parts room in which our techs place all reusable packing materials as they retrieve their parts from the parts room. Styrofoam "peanuts" are contained within a separate box. One of our OEM parts suppliers gladly accepts and reuses all the used packing materials we can produce, the local landfill gets a huge break, and I save the disposal costs of around 30 cubic yards per year.

Recycle old tires back to tire dealers.

We have an agreement with a local tire dealer; we buy tires from him and he recycles all our used tires, for a minimal cost per-tire. We offset our tire disposal cost by adding a clearly marked per-tire disposal fee on the invoice at the time of sale… another opportunity to market your eco-mindedness.


Reuse 18" and 36" tape paper.

Our painters stack and reuse this several times before disposal (incidentally, they came up with this idea on their own).

Use household food cans to mix paint

Friends and family run their food cans through the dishwasher before bringing them to us by the bag full, giving them one more use before disposal, and we don't waste manpower or thinner on cleaning cans.

Heat your shop with waste crankcase oil, transmission fluid and gear oil.

Though availability of a large source of waste oil makes this impractical for many shops, used crankcase oil has been our main source of heat for over 15 years. Our present clean-burning, efficient heater puts out 280,000 BTU of heat (enough to comfortably heat a 10,000 foot shop) from two gallons of waste oil per hour. Heating with waste oil has drastically cut our propane consumption: Our mechanical department supplies much of our need, supplemented by backyard mechanics and other shops. Again, we've promoted good will with backyard mechanics and our many eco-minded customers and, considering we'd have to pay 20 cents/gallon to dispose of waste oil we generate, plus pay for an alternate source of heat, I figure our waste oil heater saves us over $2000/year.

Collect aluminum cans at their source.

Print "aluminum cans only" on several garbage cans, line each with a garbage bag, cut a four-inch hole in their lid, and place them in well traveled and lunch break areas of your shop for carefree pop can collection. When full, simply remove the garbage bag full of cans, and install another bag.

Use recycled coolant, buy re-refined oil.

On-site reconditioning of used coolants is available in many areas. This process restores the "ph balance", bringing the finished product up to specs. Local environmental agencies will direct you whom to call.

Plastic bumper covers

After many sour experiences with these, I refuse to give or sell old bumper covers to any collector because they have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt us once they've been "remanufactured" in Canada or wherever. If all collision shops did the same, we'd eliminate having to re-remanufacture improperly "remanufactured" products that often arrive with any number of fatal flaws, including shattered original paint that doesn't show its ugly head until painted and clearcoated. Only then do we find the old paint hidden beneath layers of lumpy sealer of questionable origin and stability.

As I look back over what I've written, I'm reminded that, except for heating with waste oil and using a paint "still", I practiced none of these measures 10 years ago. But, seeking more ways to retain as much of our bottom line as possible, we've waded into these one step at a time, an approach I'd suggest to other shops. What's interesting is that once we got the ecology ball rolling, it is our employees who've kept it moving. If you have suggestions other than those listed here, send them to me and I'll put them in print. 

Dick Strom, Modern Collision Rebuild, Bainbridge Island, WA. Fax: (206)842-8056 E-mail: moderncol@aol.com