The megafactory that became a nature reserve: Toyota UK

  • The 58,000-acre car plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire, became a ‘Site of Biological Importance’ in 2007.
  • Working with the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, the firm’s employees and contractors help protect and enhance the plants and animals that recolonised the site.
  • A specially-created Biodiversity Action Plan has identified several species of conservation concern and five priority habitats, particularly around three man-made balancing lakes.
  • The site is now part of a scheme to reintroduce ospreys to the Trent Valley, with staff helping design, build and erect nesting platforms.
  • Burnaston is one of five factories worldwide to be designated a ‘Sustainable Plant’ by Toyota, which aims to minimise their impact on the environment.

There are lots of ways businesses can work with nature to physically minimize their impact on the local environment. Many modern factories and business parks are built with eco-friendly features such as rainwater harvesting, solar panels, bioclimatic-designed buildings that passively heat and cool, green spaces and living roofs that attract a host of local wildlife.

Even megafactories, like Toyota UK’s 58,000-acre car plant in Burnaston, Derbyshire, have become recolonized by plants and animals over time. Twelve years after it was built in 1992, the Japanese firm partnered with the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust to create an on-site nature reserve and a Biodiversity Action Plan centred around its three man-made balancing lakes that collect rainwater from the site and prevent downstream flooding of the nearby brook.

Ecologists from the Trust helped monitor an abundance of wildlife across the site and found numerous species of conservation concern, including locally rare wildflowers, butterflies and moths. By 2007, the reserve became recognized as a ‘Site of Biological Importance’ with five priority habitats identified – reedbeds, ponds, lowland meadows, deciduous forest and hedgerows – which the action plan aims to preserve and enhance with the cooperation and co-management of Toyota’s staff and grounds maintenance contractor.

Then two years later, the site became an integral part of a wider wetland management scheme along the Trent Valley, which aims to encourage biodiversity and link up wetland habitats from Stoke-on-Trent to the Humber Estuary. One of the key aims of this Derbyshire Wildlife Trust initiative is to try to reintroduce breeding ospreys to the valley, drawing in ospreys from a successful population at Rutland Water. To do this, Toyota employees have helped design, build and erect nesting platforms and perches around their factory site and balancing lakes, as well as elsewhere along the Trent Valley.

Burnaston is one of five factories worldwide that Toyota selected to become a ‘Sustainable Plant’, whose vision is to be able to run for more than 100 years with minimal impact on the environment. Their strategy for achieving this is threefold: through increasing renewable energy use; implementing more innovative and less wasteful technologies; and protecting and enhancing their local environment.

Toyota is proving that an industrial site needn’t be moribund of wildlife, and can even become an important part of the local ecosystem. By working with the natural adaptive cycles of nature, businesses can help accelerate its renewal locally and build its resilience more widely. But what if a business’ ecological role went even deeper, informing every part of its operations so that it provides the same benefits as a high-performing ecosystem.

This is the premise of ‘biomimicry’ that uses nature’s designs and processes to solve human problems. The concept is being pushed to its limit by US carpet manufacture Interface at its LaGrange plant in Georgia, USA, where they’re attempting to create a ‘Factory as a Forest’ that provides an array of ecosystem services, like recycling nutrients, carbon sequestration and water storage. So they’ve devised a range of ecological performance standards based on a healthy, local forest ecosystem which they’ll use to measure the factory’s contribution to the soil, atmosphere, biodiversity, water and carbon levels.

The experiment is still ongoing, but to paraphrase Janine Benyus – the scientist and natural historian who has pioneered the adoption of biomimicry by businesses in recent decades – when the factory and the forest become functionally indistinguishable in terms of their roles in a local ecosystem, then a business will truly have reached sustainability.

Photo © M J Richardson (cc-by-sa/2.0)