How GM Generates $1 Billion from Recycling

General Motors has turned trash into cash — to the tune of $1 billion in new revenue streams from recycling and reuse.

According to the company’s latest sustainability report, GM’s byproduct recycling and reuse initiatives have not only saved money, they’ve also generated revenue for the automaker. “Thinking of waste as just a ‘resource out of place’ is in our DNA,” the report says.

At the end of last year, 90 of GM’s manufacturing operations (53 percent) and 41 nonmanufacturing operations were landfill-free. At these landfill-free manufacturing sites, about 89 percent of waste materials are reused or recycled and about 9 percent are converted to energy at waste-to-energy facilities.

The company estimates it reused, recycled or composted more than 2 million metric tons of waste materials globally at its manufacturing operations, converted about 144,000 metric tons of waste to energy and avoided 8.9 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions during 2015.

In an interview with Environmental Leader, John Bradburn, GM global manager of waste reduction, said the company’s byproduct recycling and reuse initiative was a precursor to its landfill-free program. The company has set a goal of 150 landfill-free sites globally by 2020.

“A lot of companies look at these various materials as a scrap or a waste or trash or sludge — you name it,” Bradburn says. “We called it all ‘byproducts’ and that program has really helped tie the sustainability factors to the business factors.”

In 2000, Bradburn says he pitched a project to sell vehicle parts with slight blemishes on a secondary market to dealerships, rather than throwing them in the trash. “We instituted that and made $10 million the very first year,” he says. “That set the stage for us to say we’re making some good money on this material.”

GM also turns employees’ recycled water bottles into noise-reducing fabric insulation that covers the Chevrolet Equinox engine — thus saving money on purchasing virgin materials — and turns polystyrene foam packaging into footwear.

The company’s Canadian Automotive Manufacturing Inc. assembly turns scrap wood into mulch for its wetlands and Grand Rapids Operations recycles grinding wheels as sandpaper. The Grand Rapids site also works with a partner that processes wastewater treatment sludge into a fuel source for the building materials industry.

The automaker generates a huge amount of metal byproduct, which is separates, sorts and sells, as well as reusing the material in its plants. “Part of that $1 billion included bringing materials back into our foundries, rather than buying metals on the open market,” Bradburn says. “There are significant savings in keeping materials in a closed loop, and a circular economy scenario.”

Non-ferrous metals such as aluminum, bronze and magnesium are separated and sorted at GM facilities. “Those are higher-end metals that have more value; we work closely with our purchasing group to find the greatest values in the sales of hose commodities now that they are separated,” Bradburn says.

While low commodity prices mean GM doesn’t make as much money as it used to on recyclables such as cardboard, “we focus on collecting as much as possible, selling it and making pretty good revenue,” Bradburn says. “We also said, ‘let’s make a car part out of it, too,’ and we did that.” Federal Mogul, a GM supplier, turns cardboard into sound absorbers. This cuts GM’s costs by 25 to 45 percent because GM supplies the cardboard — and doesn’t have to purchase new materials — and avoids landfill fees.

The company isn’t interested in keeping its recycling and reuse revenue secrets to itself. GM has published a downloadable blueprint, The Business Case for Zero Waste, which details best practices in an effort to help companies of all sizes and industries generate revenue from waste byproducts.

“It’s a matter of not being satisfied with any current processes,” Bradburn says. “Never be satisfied with traditional recycling. Find that next level of use and reuse.”