To John Bradburn, General Motors’ manager of waste reduction efforts, pursuing aggressive landfill diversion is not an option. “It is an imperative for business survival,” he says. “If a company is not thinking this way, they are not going to survive far into the future.”

“We are entering an era where natural resources are increasingly limited at the same time that there is increased demand and pressure on them, so any business [that] is not focused on minimizing what they waste and maximizing the value of all of their resources, including byproducts, will become increasingly less competitive,” Bradburn says.

Over the past decade, GM has embraced Bradburn’s enthusiasm for “zero waste.” For its entire global operations, GM reports a recycling rate of approximately 90 percent, having achieved its goal of having 50 percent of its facilities attain “landfill-free” status by 2010.

“Maximizing the value of our resources makes sense financially, and we also recognize that it has great environmental and social value as well,” Bradburn says. “We recognized that we could reduce waste and make money. In doing so, we opened up a number of greater opportunities.”

The Financial Benefits

Of the hundreds of waste streams that GM manages, the majority are now considered recyclable. Instead of spending money to dispose of those recyclables, GM says it has brought in more than $2.5 billion from their sale since 2007.

That figure doesn’t take into account the volume of materials that return to the GM production chain that in turn reduce the costs of purchasing new materials. Even initiatives that today are only cost neutral may grow to have financial value as they scale. An example of this is using recycled cardboard from GM facilities in the headliner in the Buick Lacrosse and Verano. When GM first began doing this in the Lacrosse, it was a cost-neutral move. With the Verano, it has become a cost savings.

“The world is changing at an incredible pace, so we cannot rely on just one solution,” Bradburn says. “We must jumble up the options and keep new ideas in mind so that they can be deployed if and when we need them.”

With 2.5 million tons per year of materials from GM plants being recycled each year, it’s clear that the firm is actively engaged in resource management and maximizing value of as many materials as possible. The early days of recycling at GM were heavily focused on the valuable metals that could be reclaimed for significant dollars. As the company continued to find more material that could be recycled for some value, GM expanded its recycling efforts far beyond the most common commodity grades.

For example, GM’s oil management program reclaims more than 1.5 million gallons of oil from GM’s North America facilities each year. Approximately 25 percent of the reclaimed oil is returned to GM in the form of recycled way lube. Solvents are refined and reblended, then returned to GM facilities to be reused in removing paint.