When General Motors began tackling its waste streams, it first went after its largest source: its 140-plus manufacturing plants around the world.
After getting half of its plants to the point that they send no waste to landfill, the company turned its eye to its other locations, and now all the trash from 10 of its non-manufacturing sites gets reused, recycled or converted to energy through incineration.
The bulk of the waste from those places -- offices, engineering, customer care, aftersales and proving grounds -- is packaging, said John Bradburn, manager of GM's waste reduction efforts. But the sites don't deal with just simple cardboard and plastic.
Creating packaging that keeps parts damage-free, along with handling things like engines, means that protection can easily trump recyclability. Parts come from various places around the world, go through multiple loadings and unloading, and travel by plane, sea and ground.
GM's customer care and aftersales facility in Burton, Mich., one of the landfill-free locations, has found a few ways to mesh environmental needs with part safety.
Cardboard boxes are sometimes attached to wood pallets with metal fasteners to secure them and keep them form shifting, but that also makes it difficult to separate the two materials. One of GM's suppliers helped alleviate that problem by bringing in a patented technology that cuts and separates the materials. Now that the facility can easily separate and sell its cardboard to recyclers, it's bringing in an additional $20,000 a month.
One factor on GM's side is the fact that it takes environmental issues into account when creating packaging specifications -- particularly how materials are attached and can be detached -- and the company has to approve packaging made and used by suppliers.
GM achieved landfill-free status at a manufacturing plant for the first time in 2005, steadily increasing the number of plants not sending waste to landfills, and now 76 of its 145 manufacturing plants carry that designation.
One of the keys to GM's efforts, Bradburn said, is data collection. Facilities and plants submit monthly reports, which include details on types and amounts of waste created.
"It gives us really good knowledge on what is where and how to manage it," Bradburn said. Sites also share best practices and lessons they've learned.
Just getting to landfill-free isn't enough for GM, he said, adding that communication about GM's work, both to employees and anyone outside of the company, is important as well. "We feel as a leader in this area it is necessary to reach out and show others how to do this," Bradburn said. "Any good leader need to be able to teach and encourage."
Pallets image CC-licensed by Håkan Dahlström/Flickr