General Motors, like all companies, doesn’t like throwing money in the trash.
This is why the automaker’s landfill-free target, which it beat four years early, is so significant: operating facilities that recycle, reuse or convert to energy all waste from daily operations contribute to GM’s top and bottom lines by driving efficiencies, generating revenue and saving money.
“We not only measure and report all of our operations’ material streams into a software system in terms of tonnage on a monthly basis, but we also measure the financial value of those streams,” John Bradburn, GM global manager of waste reduction, told Environmental Leader. “This directly communicates how each plant is performing to help GM’s bottom line. It also identifies opportunities for continual improvement, provides a place to share of best practices, and create a condition where we can help a local community participate and develop certain technologies that may be missing form their own infrastructure. This last idea will help the world become more sustainable.”
In 2011 GM set a goal to operate 150 landfill-free sites by 2020. This year, it added 23 such sites, and now boasts 152 facilities globally that send zero waste to landfills.
It accomplished this through recycling used water bottles into engine cover insulation and recycling grinding wheels as sandpaper, among other initiatives. While undergoing a multi-site campus decommissioning, GM partnered with Herman Miller and Green Standards to repurpose and recycle tens of thousands of pieces of office furniture and equipment.
GM also works with its suppliers on circular economy efforts such as turning cardboard into sound absorbers, which saves GM money on purchasing new materials.
These landfill-free facilities are saving — and making — money for GM. They improve operational efficiency and eliminate waste-hauling fees. Repurposing waste into vehicle components or plant supplies means the company doesn’t have to buy virgin material.
In an earlier interview, Bradburn discussed how the company has generated up to $1 billion from recycling in recent years.
In an interview about GM’s latest landfill-free accomplishment, Bradburn said while he doesn’t have the total dollar amount that the company has invested in its landfill-free efforts and facilities, “I can tell you that our revenue and savings far outweigh the costs.”
Bradburn said GM has various ongoing costs that make it challenging to define how much landfill-free costs the company.
GM recycles or reuses 2 million metric tons of byproducts a year.
“Nearly all byproduct materials bring in revenue and for those that don’t, we deploy projects to reduce that cost through numerous strategies and lessons learned,” he added. “It is important to allow for some variance on an individual plant basis as well, because each operation has a unique set of conditions. We also feel it is imperative to continue reducing costs well after landfill-free has been achieved by implementing sustainable management methods and moving materials up the waste hierarchy.”
Bradburn said it’s important to GM not only to improve its bottom line, but to help other companies as well. To this end, GM mentors about 25 companies a year, from small businesses to large multinational corporations, on how to manage challenging waste streams. GM also outlines best practices in a landfill-free blueprint.
“The Business Case for Zero Waste should be an imperative for executives to read so they can deploy the strategies in other areas of their business as well,” Bradburn said. “Waste comes in many forms. Efforts to reduce waste lead to increased efficiency and profits — which is what they’d likely be interested in at first glance. However, it’s also important to understand that as countries around the world compete for work and sustainable development, executives need to study their inputs, outputs and processes to understand piece impacts a company’s profits, as well as people and the planet.”
The next-step for GM is to become a zero-waste company. But it’s already looking beyond that. “We’re still working on a concept called sustainable materials management, which considers many issues beyond tonnage, volume and zero waste,” Bradburn said. “It’s the next area of consideration for us on this journey.”