GM 2010: Lean, Green and Efficient

Less than a month after emerging from bankruptcy and relaunching with a $20 billion IPO, GM (NYSE: GM) is continuing to position itself as a company that is lean, green and efficient. Concurrent with this week’s announcement that the company had shipped its first Chevy Volt, GM announced it now has 76 landfill-free facilities, meeting its commitment to convert half of its plants to be landfill-free by the end of 2010. In 2010 alone, GM has recycled or reused 2.5 million tons of waste materials at its plants worldwide, eliminating 8.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions through this annual recycling rate.

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. But according to John Bradburn, manager of GM’s waste-reduction efforts, the company is still looking for ways to increase diversion rates. I had a chance to speak with Mr. Bradburn yesterday about the company’s recycling and waste achievements thus far and its plans going forward.

“It’s all about being creative, lean and rethinking traditional manufacturing processes,” said Bradburn. Company-wide, GM is diverting 90 percent of its waste materials from landfills but materials like like paint sludges, grinding swarf, cardboard related films and packages have traditionally posed problems for achieving higher diversion rates.

“It gets a bit tricky sometimes finding end uses for some of these materials,” Bradburn said.

“Paint sludges have been a challenge over the years,” said Bradburn, explaining that the company is now using plastic pallets that are made with 20-25% paint sludge to ship engines and engine parts internally. “I think the plastic pallet has a great future, but what I think we need to do is look at low-end plastics and post-consumer related plastics, as long as we can do it with health and safety in mind.”

Other closed-loop systems GM has designed to transform material byproducts from manufacturing and business operations into new-vehicle components and plant supplies include:

* Cardboard shipping materials from the GM Marion Stamping and Fort Wayne Assembly plants are recycled into sound-absorber material in the Buick Lacrosse’s headliner.

* Plastic caps and shipping aids from the Fort Wayne facility are converted into radiator shrouds for the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups built at the plant.

* Tires from vehicle performance testing at Milford Proving Ground are shredded and used in the manufacturing of air and water baffles for a variety of GM vehicles.

The recycling efforts not only make good environmental sense, they make good business sense too. GM has generated more than $2.5 billion in revenue since 2007 through its various recycling activities. “The demand for landfill free that is now resonating throughout the globe will actually create jobs and spur innovative ways to reuse materials,” Bradburn said.

Globally, “Each region does fairly well,” Bradburn said, noting that some “infrastructure and recycling markets are underdeveloped.”

“We have a little bit of work to do in South America. Asia does really well as does Europe,” he said.

GM’s first facility to achieve landfill-free status was an engine plant in Flint, Mich., in 2005, just a year after Subaru, became the first car maker to go zero-landfill with its “clean plant” in Lafayette, Indiana.

Article by Timothy B. Hurst, appearing courtesy Earth & Industry.

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