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Sustainability Case Study: General Motors Rides the Recycling Road

GM has designated 76 of its manufacturing plants as "landfill free."

To John Bradburn, General Motors’ manager of waste reduction efforts, pursuing aggressive landfill diversion is not an option. “It is an imperative for business survival,” he says. “If a company is not thinking this way, they are not going to survive far into the future.”

“We are entering an era where natural resources are increasingly limited at the same time that there is increased demand and pressure on them, so any business [that] is not focused on minimizing what they waste and maximizing the value of all of their resources, including byproducts, will become increasingly less competitive,” Bradburn says.

Over the past decade, GM has embraced Bradburn’s enthusiasm for “zero waste.” For its entire global operations, GM reports a recycling rate of approximately 90 percent, having achieved its goal of having 50 percent of its facilities attain “landfill-free” status by 2010.

“Maximizing the value of our resources makes sense financially, and we also recognize that it has great environmental and social value as well,” Bradburn says. “We recognized that we could reduce waste and make money. In doing so, we opened up a number of greater opportunities.”

The Financial Benefits

Of the hundreds of waste streams that GM manages, the majority are now considered recyclable. Instead of spending money to dispose of those recyclables, GM says it has brought in more than $2.5 billion from their sale since 2007.

That figure doesn’t take into account the volume of materials that return to the GM production chain that in turn reduce the costs of purchasing new materials. Even initiatives that today are only cost neutral may grow to have financial value as they scale. An example of this is using recycled cardboard from GM facilities in the headliner in the Buick Lacrosse and Verano. When GM first began doing this in the Lacrosse, it was a cost-neutral move. With the Verano, it has become a cost savings.

“The world is changing at an incredible pace, so we cannot rely on just one solution,” Bradburn says. “We must jumble up the options and keep new ideas in mind so that they can be deployed if and when we need them.”

With 2.5 million tons per year of materials from GM plants being recycled each year, it’s clear that the firm is actively engaged in resource management and maximizing value of as many materials as possible. The early days of recycling at GM were heavily focused on the valuable metals that could be reclaimed for significant dollars. As the company continued to find more material that could be recycled for some value, GM expanded its recycling efforts far beyond the most common commodity grades.

For example, GM’s oil management program reclaims more than 1.5 million gallons of oil from GM’s North America facilities each year. Approximately 25 percent of the reclaimed oil is returned to GM in the form of recycled way lube. Solvents are refined and reblended, then returned to GM facilities to be reused in removing paint.

Landfill Free

The phrase “zero waste” has become a common term, used by businesses as well as communities, individuals and even countries that have set aggressive goals for reducing waste. To people who don’t know better, the phrase may be misconstrued to mean that a facility literally does not generate any byproducts at all. However, in practice, zero waste involves a combination of source reduction and diverting generated waste from landfills through reuse, recycling and waste-to-energy (WTE) plants, among other diversion methods.

GM has designated 76 of its manufacturing plants as “landfill free,” meaning that 100 percent of the waste generated during production operations is either recycled, reused or sent to WTE facilities. According to GM, nearly 97 percent of the waste materials from these plants is recycled and reused while 3 percent is shipped to a WTE facility. For some hazardous waste, incineration is the safest form of disposal, but GM seeks to minimize sending materials to WTE plants because of the transportation costs and tipping fees.

Now, the company has begun to address customer care and service facilities, which have different material streams like packaging and paper waste. GM already has eight non-manufacturing facilities that it has designated “landfill free.”

Getting Creative

GM demonstrated how waste can be used as a resource in a very high profile way when the company reclaimed 215,000 pounds of used oil booms from the Gulf of Mexico during last summer’s oil spill to make parts for the Chevy Volt. The booms provided enough material to make one part for the Volt for an entire year’s worth of production.

“Even though it was cost neutral, it was important to demonstrate it could be done,” Bradburn says. “We couldn’t have done it without the collaboration of several key suppliers.” The GM design team also had to ensure the reclaimed materials met strict performance standards. In addition to the Chevy Volt example, supplier innovation played a critical role in the development of headliner material made of recycled cardboard that went into the Buick LaCrosse.

More Work to be Done

When Bradburn talks about zero waste efforts, one gets the sense that the work never ends. He is quick to point out that continuous improvement is critical. “I encourage all businesses to consider all forms of waste as resources [that are] out of place,” Bradburn says. “Look closely at your processes and know that virtually all materials, when managed efficiently, can have beneficial reuse. Ask yourself, staff and others if your processes are as efficient as possible and if all waste is being managed in the following order: eliminated, repurposed, recycled or converted to energy.”

Brooke Farrell is co-founder and chief marketing officer of RecycleMatch, a software and services company site that aids companies in their zero-waste efforts by helping them find buyers for their recyclable materials.


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