Most people do not realize the sea of change that has occurred at companies like General Motors (GM) when it comes to dealing with waste. The automotive giant has been quietly developing extensive strategies for utilizing materials they once had to pay to dispose of, emulating what Cradle to Cradle authors Michael Braungart and William McDonough talk about when they say, “waste equals food.” This is the way it works in nature. Leaves fall from trees in the forest providing food for soil organisms and insects, which in turn provide food for the trees as well as many other creatures.
As an example, GM’s plant in Rayong, Thailand, along with its plant in Talegaon, India, swapped wood pallets for reusable, recycled plastic containers that weigh less and cost less. The two facilities reduced wood pallet waste by a combined 146 tons last year, a success that now has GM’s North American operations researching the use of these plastic containers in their operations.
Reducing the pallet’s weight from 30 lbs to 8 lbs also reduces energy costs, and the fact that they are more durable increases the potential for reuse.
I spoke with John Bradburn, GM’s manager of waste-reduction efforts, about the progress GM has made in these areas. Speaking of the pallet initiative, John said, “Our most common recycling method is to grind them for mulch, and our South Africa plant is even taking them apart to make furniture.”
Another benefit of this approach is that it increases demand for recyclable plastics, something the company has quite a bit to dispose of. It also reduces the pressure on exotic wood species that was exacerbated by the need for pallet wood, and the problem of invasive insect species like the highly destructive emerald ash borer whose eggs were traveling inside these pallets and spreading around the world.
When this product first began it was envisioned as a disposable pallet, but now they are evaluating some heavier pallets that are more durable with the intention of reusing them on a regular basis. Trade-offs of this nature are critical in understanding the best path forward. I asked if they performed lifecycle analyses (LCAs) on projects like this
He said that for the most part, LCA is done on strategic initiatives. While they certainly shed light on the issues, because of the many factors involved, it’s hard to get a precise answer. They are also expensive to perform, and besides, the case has already been made to management to move forward on projects of this type.
Another new initiative is the use of paint sludge as a feedstock to make the pallets and other plastic materials from. Paint sludge has historically been a difficult waste product to deal with. Learning to utilize it as a raw material solves multiple problems. Pallets made from sludge are currently being used on the Chevy Volt. The company is also looking into using paint sludge as an energy source, both as a coal supplement and as syngas. They produce roughly 400 tons of sludge per assembly plant per year. There are 15 assembly plants in the U.S. alone.
I asked John if he foresaw a time when these operations would be self-sustaining from a financial perspective.
“It’s a difficult business case to quantify, but yes, that will happen. It’s kind of like an LCA because there are so many impact factors. When I took a look at this I came up with something like 120 impact factors that you could use to compare one option against another, and that’s probably only half the story. But still; even with 120, it’s a very challenging thing to do. So you try to hit the big ones. But if you look at it from a byproducts perspective, with the metals included, then it’s certainly possible.”
The company has in fact published a Business Case for Zero Waste online. It shows that the company, which currently recycles 90 percent of its waste worldwide, received revenues of $2.5 billion between 2007 and 2010 from recycling activities, primarily from scrap. The company now has 106 landfill-free plants worldwide.
“That has really helped us drive the importance of the financial leg to sustainability,” said Bradburn. “A key factor in how we’ve been able to accomplish these landfill-free successes has been because we’ve demonstrated it to the entire company, and this is a subject that picks up everybody’s interest from the top leadership across the entire organization.
“We need to demonstrate that it’s good for the environment, good for our communities and also good for our bottom line. What we did about eight years ago was the byproducts program, which is where we pulled in all the various streams the metals, the trash, the sludge, you name it—anything that was not a product, coming out of the plant, and we combined it under one system and tried to manage it as such. We created a financial indicator that looked at how many dollars were received back from various streams and then compared that with cost. That exercise really opened the eyes of a lot of people.”
He described GM’s approach as being “holistic.” What differentiates the inititative is how they treat waste. Many companies divide their byproduct into two categories: scrap and waste. “We put that all together and I think that helps us significantly,” he said. “We meet regularly. Purchasing is a key partner. We’ve got a pretty good thing going now. But we’re not happy until we’re well beyond our goal. Landfill-free is not the end point. We must go much beyond that to further improve our costs, efficiencies, revenue, quality, all of that.”
Part of that goal, according to Bradburn, is to “move any of these streams up the disposition hierarchy. We support those actions towards an ultimate goal of not generating any waste.”
This a growing field of expertise, much of which is gained by trial and error. Knowledge is shared by regular meetings and conference calls with all of their regions. They talk about specific examples. Bradburn said, “A lot of times we find we can do better than just recycle. We’re at the point where we can reuse, we can repurpose, we can collaborate and combine materials and mix things. During those calls we talk through some of those issues. I also do a quarterly call with our engineers and our plant environmental teams. We also use a website as a way of disseminate information, which include best practices.”
Closer to home they reuse the Chevy Volt battery boxes for wildlife habitat, such as wood duck houses. It’s a difficult material to recycle, and they have been very successful as wildlife nesting sites. The company has worked with scouts and other youth who have built a lot of these and placed them in appropriate sites.
It’s clear that, as Mike Robinson, GM vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs said, “A landfill-free program requires investment. It’s important to be patient as those upfront costs decrease in time, and recycling revenues will help offset them. This program allows GM to reduce its waste footprint while creating greater environmental awareness among employees and communities where we make and sell cars and trucks. Whether a company is large or small, a landfill-free journey involves a long-term view, bottom-line focus, innovative thinking and ongoing collaboration.”