General Motors wants to make all its plants landfill-free by 2020, with all production waste reused, recycled or used to create energy. And it wants to show other companies how to do the same
General Motors (GM), America's biggest car company, already recycles 90% of its worldwide manufacturing waste and it has 102 landfill-free facilities, even though it only set the target in 2011.
It aims to have 125 facilities landfill-free by 2020.
Industrial facilities in the US send 7.6 billion tons of industrial waste to landfill every year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
By treating all by-products from its production process as useful and marketable, GM says it now makes about $1 billion a year from recycling and reusing materials. The company recycles 2.4 million tons of material every year and the battle against waste is also reducing the company’s CO2 emissions – more than ten million tons of CO2e emissions were avoided in 2011 as a result of the reuse and recycling programs.
Waste reduction also often enhances productivity, quality, efficiency and throughput, it adds, and as a result, GM merged its environmental efforts with its manufacturing sustainability goals. Its blueprint for waste reduction strategies, which it has published, says the underlying philosophy behind the programme is “thinking of waste as a resource out of place”.
The company’s strategy has nine steps:
Track waste data;
Define zero waste;
Prioritise waste-reduction activities;
Engage employees and build a sustainability culture;
Strengthen supplier partnerships;
Resolve regulatory challenges;
Improve efforts; and
Share best practice
But according to John Bradburn, the company’s waste reduction manager, when GM first started cutting waste it had no intention of aiming for landfill-free facilities. “We recognised that there were opportunities in waste reduction and improving efficiencies and we started whittling away at it [the amount of waste]. Eventually, we understood that we could pursue very aggressively the landfill-free goal. But that’s not where we started.”
The drivers for the scheme have also evolved. “The initial impetus was environmental, and the need to comply with regulations, but we soon realised that by designing for the environment and creating the right systems and programmes, we could promote these initiatives from a financial perspective,” he adds.
This focus on the business benefits is key. “If a project is not cost-neutral or revenue-generating, a company should rethink it,” GM says. However, this does not just mean abandoning hope of making use of a particular material. Instead, it recommends re-evaluating the possibilities.
“To improve a business case, a company may re-evaluate the project using other suppliers, substitute a different material, or seek out energy options, logistic changes, geographical options, or other processing technologies,” its blueprint recommends.
The drive to reduce waste has had a profound effect on the company’s products, with minimising waste now built into the entire “portfolio” of a product from design to disposal. “In most cases, a landfill-free project starts with finding an alternative use for a waste material and then working upstream to the engineering process,” Bradburn says.
For example, one project saw surplus sound-proofing material being used to make self-heated, waterproof coats that transform into sleeping bags for the homeless, while another transformed 227 miles of oil-soaked booms used to clean up after the BP oil spill into a year’s worth of air deflectors for the Chevrolet Volt.
The final step in the waste reduction programme is to share best practices with others and Bradburn says GM has a responsibility to give others the benefit of its experiences. “Due to our size and reach, we are in a unique position to spread the message. GM believes mentoring other companies from all manufacturing sectors is an important aspect to its landfill-free programme.
“To reduce industrial waste going to landfill, companies must continue to openly discuss best practices and work together to brainstorm uses for challenging byproducts. Many deal with the same waste streams, from packaging to paper and metals.” To this end, the company allows other businesses to tour its facilities to see what it is doing and its environmental engineers offer ideas as to how others can reduce their landfill.
One factor that deters many companies from sustainability projects is the upfront costs, but GM says that it is worth the initial expense, not least because costs come down spectacularly over time. “A landfill-free programme requires investment,” says Mike Robinson, GM vice-president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs. “It’s important to be patient as those upfront costs decrease in time, and recycling revenues will help offset them.”
When GM started its landfill-free programme, it invested about $10 for every ton of waste reduced. Over time, it has cut program costs by 92% and total waste by 62%. About 85% of the average GM vehicle’s parts are now recyclable or 95% by weight.
Bradburn is convinced of the benefits of the waste reduction programme to one of the world’s largest companies. “Beyond doubt, it makes GM a better business. The strength of any business is measured in how well they serve their communities and how well they manage their resources for their customers and for the environment. I know GM is stronger for this programme.
“We know that doing this type of resource re-use, reduction and recycling is good for business and it is necessary for our business to survive into the future,” he adds. And achieving landfill-free status at all of its facilities is not the end of the journey, he stresses. “We are now involved in a process of continual improvement.”
One example of this is that the company is looking again at how materials are reused. Some materials, such as foam, are currently used to generate energy, which is the last calling point in the waste hierarchy “because it is a one-time use and we prefer to keep materials in use. So now we are looking at re-using it rather than generating power from it.”