by Alex Francis
In 2005, General Motors made a commitment to keep its waste out of landfills. This commitment was neither an abstract pledge nor an unfounded publicity stunt, but rather an earnest promise to make an effort to reduce the company’s negative environmental impact.
Its goal is to have 125 landfill-free facilities in operation around the world by 2020, and with a total of 104 already in the books, it’s possible that they may even surpass that. (GM already exceeded a previous pledge to convert 50% of its facilities to being landfill-free by 2010—by the end of the year, 52% had hit the mark.)
“A Resource Out of Place”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, industrial facilities send 7.6 billion tons of nonhazardous waste to landfills every year. To put that number in perspective, if you estimate that the average car weighs 1.5 tons, that’s about 5.07 billion cars worth of waste. The number of cars on the road worldwide only passed the one-billion mark in 2010, and it’s not expected to hit 2.5 billion—just half the weight of one year’s worth of industrial, nonhazardous waste—until 2050.
So when GM says that they reuse or recycle 90% of their manufacturing waste worldwide, which amounted to 2.5 million tons of waste recycled in 2011 alone, we’d say that they’re doing their part.
The key to GM’s successful recycling effort is that, as Joann Muller wrote in her Forbes article on the subject, they see their waste “not as something to be thrown away, but as a resource out of place.”
Putting Everything in its Right Place
Perhaps the most impressive part of GM’s recycling program is its emphasis on reusing and repurposing so-called waste materials. For example, instead of sending excess sheets of steel to a foundry to be melted into scrap metal, they sell it directly to a company than can use it as-is. This cuts down on the emissions that result from the melting and reprocessing and is an overall more efficient way to recycle.
To make their efforts as efficient as possible, GM set up a central electronic tracking system for all of its plants to report their monthly progress and performance. With each facility up to speed on the activities of the rest, sharing newly discovered uses for byproducts becomes easy. The company also hired dedicated resource management employees monitor waste generation on-site.
All in all, the company’s recycling efforts generate about $1 billion in revenue a year. For more information on GM’s exemplary recycling program, check out Joann Muller’s in-depth article on Forbes.com
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