Battery cases into birds’ nests, test tires into new parts—GM is finding no shortage of ways to give materials new life.
GM has long thought of waste as simply a resource out of place. As we manufacture, retire and recycle vehicles and their parts, we aim to see materials not only as they are, but also in terms of what they can become. This mindset allows us to find ways to improve in every aspect of our operations, such as reuse of 36,400 tons of dies and tools from our manufacturing process—a contribution to the 2 million tons of byproducts we recycle or reuse every year. Management of this material helps avoid over 7.5 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, and much of this material is resold, generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
GM, the Lonely Whale Foundation and other partners have joined forces to address ocean plastics and improve vital ocean ecosystems. Together they form NextWave, an open-source initiative working to develop the first commercial-scale, ocean-bound-plastics supply chain. NextWave will develop a model that reduces plastic pollution at scale and ensures the resulting supply chain has the infrastructure and support to meet demand in a socially and environmentally responsible way. The group hopes to divert more than 3 million pounds of plastics from entering the ocean within five years, the equivalent of keeping 66 million water bottles from washing out to sea.
An even greener method than recycling unneeded materials is putting those materials to new use. We introduced this concept to students at Texas A&M University’s College of Architecture, where we hosted a competition to design the Houston Museum of Waste, an imaginary 27,000-square-foot structure. Students had to incorporate offal—a galvanized piece of thin sheet metal left over when stamping out car parts—within the building’s physical separation of its interior and exterior. Designs were judged by a committee of experts from GM, the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development and architectural groups. The project continues through a three-year grant, engaging multidisciplinary teams of faculty and graduate students on projects relating to the circular economy revolution, with GM serving as a partner and advisor.
Circular-economy solutions can also provide societal benefits while sparking creativity. For example, we’ve upcycled Chevrolet Volt battery cases into bat boxes, nesting structures for endangered ducks and, most recently, into planter boxes for gardens. GM manufacturing leaders recently built 16 planters and donated them to organizations that serve people with special needs in Flint and Detroit.
GDC, a supplier that turns GM manufacturing byproducts such as used test tires and plastic packaging materials into vehicle parts, recently led a troop of Girl Scouts in Indiana to a project that repurposes trim scrap from vehicle sound absorbers into filler for archery targets. The troop took it a step further and considered a third life for the material. After about a year of use, the filling is returned to GDC, where it is recycled into air management components for a variety of Chevrolet vehicles. These molded plastic parts work to keep vehicle engines at their optimal temperature.
Girl Scouts repurpose trim scrap from vehicle sound absorbers into filler for archery targets.
GM also continues to repurpose and recycle its office furniture and equipment in partnership with Green Standards and Herman Miller, achieving 99.7 percent waste diversion while providing usable materials for Michigan nonprofits.