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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Auto Body Shop

Air Date: Week of

Instead of wasting paint, thinners and other toxic substances, an auto body shop in Duluth has used some inventiveness to reduce harmful waste. Stephanie Hemphill reports from Minnesota Public Radio.


CURWOOD: An auto body shop finds that preventing pollution pays. That story is just ahead on Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As the folks around the Great Lakes have become more aware of environmental change, they're asking more questions about where water pollution comes from. People are often quick to point a finger at big business, but small businesses can help or hurt the environment as well. Stephanie Hemphill of member station KUMD in Duluth visited an auto body shop near Lake Superior that is finding that cutting down on pollution is boosting profits.

(Auto shop sounds)

HEMPHILL: Nobody likes to have to take their car to a body shop. You worry about the cost, the workmanship, and how do you know if the shop is honest? Well, here's something new to ask yourself: what is the shop doing with the hazardous waste that comes from fixing your car? Paint, paint cleaner, solvents, coolant. The thousands of body shops around the country generate tons of hazardous waste each year. Among the most dangerous are volatile organic compounds, which escape into the air and contribute to urban smog; and heavy metals, which are flushed down the drain and can cause nerve damage and reproductive problems.

OGSTEN: In the auto repair business, where we produce most of the waste is in the paint department. And the first place...

HEMPHILL: Joe Ogsten owns Ogsten Body and Paint in Duluth. He says the steps he's taken in the last couple of years to reduce waste are saving him about $30,000 a year. You can see his approach as you look around his bright, spotless shop.

OGSTEN: This is our paint mixing system, and with the colors that you see here we can mix any variety of colors that we need in the shop. In conjunction to this bank of mixing paints, we also have a computerized scale, and rather than going to the jobber to buy a pint or a quart of mixed material that we might only use one or two ounces of and end up with 14 ounces of waste, we can mix down to one ounce here. So if we have a small job where we only need an ounce or two of paint, we can only mix an ounce or two of paint. So right off the bat we've eliminated possibly 80, 90% of the waste on certain jobs.

HEMPHILL: Then there's the equipment for washing the paint guns. Ogsten used to use up to 2 quarts of thinner to clean each gun after a paint job. Now he's got a closed loop system that reuses thinner over and over.

OGSTEN: This piece of equipment in here is a solvent recycler, and anybody from Prohibition days would recognize this as almost being a still. The heating element reaches a point where the solvent turns into a vapor. The vapor goes into a cooling condenser and comes out as pure solvent again. The piece of equipment paid for itself probably the first year we had it. So then anything after that has gone in strictly to profit.

HEMPHILL: Ogsten found out about the solvent recycler in a trade magazine. When he saw how much he was saving, $5,000 to $6,000 a year, it led him to other new technologies designed to reduce waste. For Ogsten, the bottom line is the money he's saving; the environmental benefits come second.

(Running water)

HEMPHILL: Here at the Western Lake Superior Sewage Treatment Plant, they see it the other way around. Heidi Ringhoffer runs a program that helps small businesses cut down on their waste. She commends Ogsten's shop for its progressive actions.

RINGHOFFER: They've really looked at the issues and decided what was right, and they're really protecting the environment. The emissions, what they might be putting down the drain that might be coming to us that our sewer system has to process, that would just mean less chemicals, less hazardous waste that has to be dealt with by us.

HEMPHILL: Joe Ogsten wasn't always an environmentalist. He spent years looking over his shoulder, waiting in dread for the knock on the door from the pollution police.

OGSTEN: Any time anybody before mentioned environment, there was always: how am I going to skirt the issue? Some day they're going to come here in the little white suits and they're going to haul me away. And whether you want to believe it or not, you carry that burden around on your shoulders. And the fact that we've gotten involved now and can feel good about what we're doing, and then the byproduct of that is a better bottom line, how can you afford not to be excited?

HEMPHILL: With help from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Ogsten is sharing his ideas with competitors in a newly revived trade group. He says more and more shops around the country are realizing that by cutting down on hazardous waste they can improve their bottom line.

(Hammering, motorized sounds)

HEMPHILL: For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie Hemphill in Duluth.



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