General Motors Rakes in Revenues From Recycling

The automotive industry is “material resource–intensive,” General Motors stated in its 2015 sustainability report

The iconic American automaker wants to change that by greatly reduce its own waste footprint — committing to cut total waste by 40 percent by 2020, from the base year of 2010. And that includes all of its manufacturing waste.

In 2011, GM said 100 of its manufacturing sites, along with 50 non-manufacturing facilities, would be landfill-free by 2020. The company hit that target last year, four years ahead of schedule. 

All totaled, 152 of GM’s global facilities send zero waste to landfill: 100 of which are manufacturing plants. And now, it’s looking toward the next step. 

“While we continue to increase the reuse of byproducts, our vision is to eliminate waste by applying the most advanced manufacturing processes and technologies in our plants globally,” Alicia Boler Davis, GM executive vice president of global manufacturing, said in a statement.

GM recycles or reuses 2 million tons of byproducts a year across its supply chain. Finding innovative end uses for its byproducts, as outlined in GM’s Landfill Free Blueprint, helped the automaker accomplish this feat. Solutions include: 

  • Converting 227 miles of oil-soaked booms from the 2010 Gulf oil spill into two production years’ worth of air deflectors in the Chevrolet Volt.
  • Recycling cardboard packaging into Buick Verano headliners to provide acoustic padding that reduces noise in the passenger compartment.
  • Recycling over 3.2 million water bottles from six GM facilities and the Flint, Michigan, community into fabric insulation to cover the Chevrolet Equinox v6 engine and dampen noise — an air filtration component used in 10 GM facilities — and insulation for the Empowerment Plan coat that transforms into a sleeping bag for the homeless.

And in defiance of the convention that sustainability kills profits, recycling generates money for GM — $2.5 billion in revenue from 2007 to 2010 to be exact. GM says recycling efforts generated an additional $1 billion in recent years, which it reinvests back into its business, including the development of fuel-efficient vehicles.

When GM began taking steps to achieve landfill-free facilities in the U.S., it invested about $10 for every 1 ton of waste reduced. But the program costs have since been reduced by 92 percent. 

And cutting waste is having positive environmental effects beyond GM’s own supply chain. In 2015, about 8.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions were prevented from entering the atmosphere as a result of GM’s reuse and recycling programs, according to the company.

Landfill-free facilities have better operational efficiency and eliminate waste-hauling fees, plus re-purposing waste into vehicle components or plant supplies eliminates having to buy virgin materials.

“We view sustainability as a business approach,” said John Bradburn, GM global manager of waste reduction. “We look at ways we can grow and strengthen our business for the long term, and that often means reducing our environmental footprint while maximizing social benefit.”

Industrial facilities in the U.S. generate and manage 7.6 billion tons of non-hazardous industrial waste in land disposal units a year. By contrast, GM recycles 85 percent of its worldwide manufacturing waste.

The American automaker has more landfill-free facilities and recycles more waste from its global facilities than any other in its sector. GM wants to continue its progress by having all manufacturing sites achieve zero waste to landfill.

Overall, the auto industry is one of the leaders when it comes to zero-waste-to-landfill commitments. America’s other leading automaker Ford, for example, also has a goal to eliminate the disposal of waste in landfills — inking a plan to cut waste sent to landfill by 40 percent per-vehicle back in 2013. A total of 26 of its facilities have achieved zero-waste-to-landfill status. 

Perhaps one day the vehicles made in the U.S. will come from facilities that do not send any waste to landfill. As automakers continue to move toward this goal, it seems a race to the top may be inevitable — to the benefit of drivers and ecosystems alike.

Image credit: Flickr/Alan Levine

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Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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