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Leon Kaye headshot

GM Churns 2 Million Water Bottles Into Fleece

By Leon Kaye

General Motors (GM) long claimed to be an industry leader in recycling. It describes its zero-waste agenda as encompassing a variety of programs, from reusing spent Chevy Volt batteries at a data center to converting used battery cases into duck houses for wildlife habitats. In recent years, the company has also added used water bottles to its kit of raw materials. Now the company says 2 million water bottles, many of which are from Flint, have been recycled into three products.

According to the company, the new materials include engine covers for the V-6 Chevrolet Equinox, air filters for 10 GM plants, and coats for the homeless through a partnership the company has with a Detroit nonprofit. Through this recycling program, GM says it works with a total of 11 organizations while boosting its waste diversion efforts.

GM’s recycling efforts shows that while these companies are a long way off from a total “closed loop” system, the steps the company is making are moving in that direction. One challenge the automakers face in using recycled products for parts is whether they can maintain the same quality and strength of conventionally made materials.

But in the meantime, there is plenty of low-hanging fruit for which recycled plastic can be used, and the EMPWR coat is one prime example of how recycling can fuel social enterprise. With the plastic-turned-insulation material provided by GM, employees at The Empowerment Plan can make these jackets which can also double as sleeping bags. The non-profit says its workers, many of whom were at one time homeless, can produce 1,000 of these coats on a budget of $100,000. For each 1,000 coats distributed, The Empowerment Plan estimates that 14 lives are saved and regional governments can save $58,800 annually on health care services. So far GM says the 24,000 yards of insulation that it has provided for this project has amounted to 6,500 coats distributed throughout the wider Detroit area.

As part of its zero waste agenda, GM has implemented PET water bottle recycling at most of its facilities worldwide. GM claims that many of the water bottles used in these products are from its Flint-area facilities, which employ 7,000 people. Of course, there is a reason why Flint became a massive font of water bottles for this project.

Curiously, GM’s experience with the water supply in Flint helped eventually sound off alarms about the city’s contaminated water. In an Automotive News article published earlier this year, GM officials in 2014 noticed that engines were corroding due to high levels of chloride in the water.

By the end of the year, the company’s engine plant in Flint was able to switch to another local supply—a move that was not possible for most of the city’s 100,000 residents. Workers, however, continued to notice that something was amiss with their water—and hence the Flint water crisis festered, one that is still ongoing today. GM’s response: a $50,000 donation to purchase water filters for Flint residents.

Image credit: General Motors

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