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General Motors said December 13 that 52 percent of its worldwide facilities are now landfill-free, meaning all waste generated from normal operations is reused, recycled or converted to energy.
GM now has 76 landfill-free facilities, achieving a global operations commitment established in 2008 to convert 50 percent of its 145 plants to landfill-free status by the end of 2010.
"We're committed to reducing our environmental impact," said Mike Robinson, vice president of Environment, Energy and Safety Policy at GM. "Whether it's a facility that's already achieved landfill-free status or one of the many that are nearly there, every site is serious about finding ways to reduce and reuse waste."
GM employees focus first on decreasing the amount of waste generated, and then work to recycle the unavoidable waste. This year alone, GM has recycled or reused 2.5 million tons of waste materials at its plants worldwide – enough to fill 6.8 million extended-cab pickup trucks that, if parked end-to-end, would stretch around the world.
Through this annual recycling rate, it is estimated that GM has eliminated 8.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions from entering the atmosphere.
"It's all about being creative, lean and rethinking traditional manufacturing processes," said John Bradburn, manager of GM's waste-reduction efforts. "When you think of what it would take for a family of four to not produce any trash for a year, that's quite a task. This is 76 sites around the world and about 70,000 employees committed to the cause."
GM's first facility to achieve landfill-free status was an engine plant in Flint, Mich., in 2005.
GM plants monitor, measure and report monthly on how they perform against waste-reduction goals. This data, which set the stage for the landfill-free initiative, shows what materials are being generated, reused and recycled, and reveals areas for improvement. The resulting insight helped form a process that enables facilities to replicate best practices globally.
On average, more than 97 percent of waste materials from GM's zero-landfill plants are recycled or reused and less than 3 percent is converted to energy at waste-to-energy facilities, replacing fossil fuels.
"I believe our employees were willing to engage because they could relate to what it means," said Bradburn. "People don't want to be wasteful; they want to help the environment. It's become a sense of pride for those that work at those facilities, and it reflects in quality and throughput."
Said Larry Chalfan, founder and now senior adviser of the Zero Waste Alliance: "This is another environmental leadership move for GM. In all of my experience, there are few companies that have taken zero waste to this level. GM's workforce – from the assembly line to the executives -- should be recognized for their dedication and commitment to be efficient and reduce their environmental impact."
Critical to the landfill-free designation is the ability for GM to turn material byproducts from routine manufacturing operations into new-vehicle components. Plant managers view this waste as potentially useful and marketable, and they work with their teams and suppliers to develop these closed-loop systems. Other operational waste comes full circle, as well, and is often recycled into plant supplies.
"In addition to the environmental benefits, recycling provides a strong business case," said Robinson. "GM has generated more than $2.5 billion in revenue since 2007 through its various recycling activities."
For example, metals from stamping and powertrain operations are valuable, especially considering the amount GM generates. What metal grindings and scraps GM doesn't re-melt or reuse are sold to third parties like foundries.
GM was one of the first organizations – and to date is the only auto manufacturer – inducted into the U.S. EPA WasteWise Hall of Fame, which recognizes continued outstanding waste reduction. GM's worldwide facilities combined recycle 90 percent of the waste they generate. The company has reduced total non-recycled waste 75 percent between 2000 and 2010 at manufacturing sites around the world. During the last five years, it decreased waste generated per vehicle by 28 percent.
GM has made great progress in reducing its environmental impact. In November, Chevrolet announced a multi-year commitment to invest $40 million in various clean energy projects throughout America with a goal to reduce another 8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.