Making Hondas (and Organic Soybeans) in Ohio

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 24, 2011

MARYSVILLE, OHIO—I am standing along the narrow blue path that keeps you out of the way of flying forklifts, watching energized Honda workers in white jumpsuits (also worn in the executive suites) assembling Accords. The plant receives coils of steel, and 16 hours later they roll out the door as finished Hondas.

In coordinated movements they could teach to ballet students as choreography, the Accords appear at exactly the same time as their four doors, which have been off on the other side of the plant having handles and inner panels fitted. If it appears that there are no wasted movements, that’s because Honda is relentless at eliminating them. Leftover steel pieces from those big coils of steel go back to suppliers so they can punch out small parts.

This 3.6 million-square-foot auto plant, built in 1982, amidst rolling soybean fields, builds the Accord, the Acura TL and RDX. But that’s not all it does. Did you know that Honda actually has an organic food exporting business? True, in fact it’s the largest exporter of food-grade organic soybeans in Ohio.

Decades ago, Honda realized it was a waste to send parts containers back empty to Japan, so it started filling them with soybeans and other goods that would sell in Asia. Now it grows the beans around its huge factories in Ohio, creating a trading company for the purpose. “There is a Honda way to make cars, and a Honda way to make beans,” said Kiyoaki Yamada, president of HAPI-Ohio (Honda’s soybean division).

The farmer’s markets that now regularly appear outside the factory gates aren’t there by chance, but as part of a new Honda plan to improve its workers' eating habits.

Henry Ford, who always cared about the welfare of his workers (whatever his other failings), would approve. He also made car bodies out of soybeans, and then demonstrated their toughness by bashing the cars with sledgehammers. And when he noticed that there was lots of wood scraps left over from building wooden body frames, he created the Kingswood charcoal briquette operation as a spinoff.

East Liberty and Marysville are not zero-waste operations for one reason only—the cars use lightweight aluminum hoods, and painting aluminum creates a slurry that’s impossible to recycle or reuse. But 10 other Honda plants (including newer operations in Alabama and Indiana) have achieved zero waste goals, sending nothing at all to landfills.

Ron Lietzke, a Honda manufacturing spokesman in Ohio, told me that it would actually be cheaper to have trucks haul off the company’s waste in many cases. “But if we sent all our trash to landfills we wouldn’t be improving our efficiency,” he said. “And the company benefits in many ways from having environmental targets.”

I took up a position just outside the new paint booth, opened just this month, at the East Liberty plant down the road from Marysville. Like the new Volkswagen Passat factory in Chattanooga, the booth creates no paint sludge. Minimal overspray drops into and is absorbed by dry limestone powder, which can then be sent as raw material to a cement kiln. The huge robot arm that paints instrument panels is amazing to see—it articulates like a human limb, with a sprayer head turning at 35,000 rpm to ensure even coating. The panel is zapped with 70,000 volts to ensure accurate paint adhesion.

Honda doesn’t yet paint whole cars this way, but it’s a matter of time. The greening of operations at Honda is ongoing, including the building of several new LEED-certified buildings. The Big Darby River flows nearby, and we drove past some wetlands that Honda is actively managing with help from The Nature Conservancy. In the old days, a big pipe came out of the back of car factories, and dumped waste products right into rivers like this one. It was in industrial Cleveland, in 1969, that the Cuyahoga River, dirty enough so that a hand dipped in came out black, caught fire. Today it “teems with fish and other aquatic life.”

When we left the factory, we drove past a huge parking lot with row upon row of Honda cars, waiting for shipment by rail or truck all over the world. Marysville produced 340,000 cars in 2010, and East Liberty 246,000. The nearby Anna engine plant churned out 771,000 V-6 and four-cylinder engines. Hey, they all have tailpipes so Honda has an impact on the earth, but many of its cars have partial-zero emission status and the company seems determined to offset the five- to seven-percent of the car’s lifetime pollution that comes from actually making the thing.

About 80 percent of the Honda you buy was probably made in the U.S. That's partly because of domestic content laws, but also because making cars with American workers in the U.S. heartland and shipping them around the world is actually a profitable enterprise. Some of the cars I saw being made were headed as far away as Saudi Arabia (where they like headlight washers).

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One