Inside GM's Sustainability Initiatives

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These plastic shipping aids are recycled and used for parts in the Chevrolet Volt. Photo: Jeffrey Sauger for General Motors

John Bradburn has worked at General Motors for 32 years, 17 of which he has spent as an Environmental Engineer responsible for solving GM’s most difficult waste problems.

We caught up with Brandburn to talk about sustainability and responsibility.

Earth911: What are some of the recycling initiatives you’ve seen put into place along the way?
John Bradburn: We’ve first off set up a data collection system that became the foundation to find and earmark projects. Any group that wants to look at waste reduction needs to understand what they have and set goals based on that.

Based on the data, we looked at areas that relate to certain materials that we wanted to eliminate or at least reduce. We have all the waste a household would have like plastic, cardboard, banding and pallets, but we just have way more of them. We try to earmark projects to find a better use for them. For instance, most recently, we use plastic shipping aids in an air baffle that is used in the Chevy Volt.

E911: How successful have they been?
JB: We set a goal in 2007 to have half of our manufacturing plants from all over the world landfill free. We exceeded that and 76 plants were landfill-free by the end of 2010, which equates to a lot of material, to the tune of 2.5 million tons in a year.

We look at ways to just not generate waste or reduce it, or what we do a lot of is closed-loop reuse. An example of this is we use packaging cardboard from two manufacturing plants, and we have that processed by a company who incorporates it for parts for the Buick LaCrosse. We don’t see it as waste; we see it as a resource that’s out of place. It’s all about efficiency.

E911: What are GM’s biggest environmental goals this year and how are you going to help reach them?
JB: We’re continuing with the landfill-free program. Almost everyone puts trash to the curb, so because of that, people can relate to the program, and it’s been well received externally as well as internally. Everyone understands it and gets it and bought into the concept. The goal is to increase and continue the program, which becomes an umbrella to enable landfill-free projects like some of our technology programs to recycle and reduce our more challenging materials.

E911: Is it hard to get other employees on board?
JB: It’s not that difficult, because today everyone understands that resources are finite and need to be treated in the best possible way. Obviously, it’s not perfect. There are challenges, because if a certain kind of plastic is very difficult to recycle, we have to be innovative to find solutions, but once we find one people are on board.

For instance, the Volt batteries have a cover much like a cell phone, but very large and hard to recycle. It became a challenge, so we had to look at what to do with it. We repurposed them as duck nest boxes to help wetland habitats. We have 50 placed and will have several 100 by the end of year in our wetlands as well as private lands by working with groups and organizations. So, this is just one stream, one material, but yet it’s able to take a waste and use it as a resource.

E911: Why is environmentalism so important to you?
JB: It’s part of my fabric. I look at my job as a vocation, not an occupation. Everyone has a purpose in life and this is mine. It’s not just about helping the environment and wildlife; it’s about being a mentor. My goal in life is that when I do stop, that I will have given all of my knowledge and ways of figuring things out to the next generation and the next one after that.

Everybody’s job is environmental and sustainable. Whether you’re a manufacturer or a homemaker or in education or an engineer, it doesn’t matter. Everyone has responsibility to the environment, so treat it as such and make the world a better place.

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