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Leon Kaye headshot

General Motors Expands Zero-Waste Agenda Worldwide

By Leon Kaye

General Motors (GM) continues to expand its global zero-waste program, inching closer to its goal of having 125 total facilities landfill-free by 2020. Eleven new facilities are now officially zero waste, and they range from assembly plants to regional headquarters. Following its own mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle and compost,” GM has expanded this program to 122 facilities -- over half of them outside of North America.

According to GM, the conversion of these factories and offices to landfill-free status helps the automaker prevent more than 600,000 tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere annually. At last count, the company estimates that 97 percent of all waste at its landfill-free plants is recycled or reused; the remainder is converted into energy within the plants.

The amount of waste GM recycles hardly is small change: The company in the past has estimated that it generates about US$1 billion in revenues from raw materials that do not end up going into cars. Three years running, GM’s zero-waste plan is a solid example of a company rolling out sustainability goals — and actually meeting them.

The blueprint for GM’s zero-waste program launched in 2011 and has been a central part of the company’s sustainability plan. According to the company, both taking a long-term view, and engaging employees to ensure that they are part of the process, were leading factors in this program’s ongoing success. When the zero-waste program started, it at first cost about $10 for each ton of waste the company generated. That figure has fallen 92 percent, due to several factors: a strong network of business partners who can haul away any scrap; a more lean and efficient supply chain; reliable data collection; and, of course, better materials.

So, while intuitively one would assume metal is behind GM’s recycling program — and, of course, that is a large part of GM’s raw materials -- the reuse and recycling initiatives are all over the map, literally:

  • An assembly plant in Zaragoza, Spain composts wastewater sludge into fertilizer, while inside the shop reuses 80 percent of the solvents used within its operations.

  • The operations facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan recycles oil in-house several times, saving the company $1.2 million annually. It also reprocesses wastewater sludge into a renewable fuel source.

  • An engine assembly plant in Joinville, Brazil, which is already LEED Gold certified, also composts cafeteria waste for the landscaping onsite.

  • The zero-waste mantra starts at the company’s headquarters in the Detroit Renaissance Center, which has been zero waste since 2012.

John Bradburn, GM’s global manager of waste reduction, has had a hand in many of these projects large and small. His pet project of diverting 3,000 pounds of coffee grounds from a suburban Detroit site may not sound like much, but it is an example of how little ideas can add up to create a big impact.

The new approach towards raw material usage is showing up throughout the company in other ways. GM is even dabbling into the sharing economy — though, of course, the automakers have no choice considering shared car services are picking up steam and the percentage of young adults who have driver’s licenses is declining.

In the end, all of these programs are about saving money and assuaging stakeholders — but if the results are less of an environmental impact in a world where materials are becoming more scarce, then let’s hope other automakers follow GM’s lead on waste diversion.

Image credit: GM

After a year in the Middle East and Latin America, Leon Kaye is based in California again. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Other thoughts of his are on his site, greengopost.com.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye