Designing for the Environment
We are making sustainable use of natural resources by operating efficiently, using recycled or recyclable content in our products and working to minimize waste.
For the Road Ahead:
- GM drives efficient use of resources by using recycled or recyclable content in our products and ensuring materials can be repurposed at the end of a vehicle’s life.
- In early 2020, we announced a goal to achieve at least 50 percent sustainable material content in our vehicles by 2030.
- We are embracing a circular economy by finding new purposes — and often, new value — for the waste generated by vehicle manufacturing.
- While GM’s operations are not overly water intensive, we are committed to preserving water as a natural resource — both in terms of quality and use — across our operations.
- Working with suppliers to identify and develop more sustainable materials for the thousands of parts that comprise current and future vehicles
- Ensuring that the replacement of conventional materials with more sustainable ones does not compromise vehicle safety or performance
- Identifying end markets for recycled materials, despite the transition in the demand and supply fundamentals of the global commodities market
- Finding effective practices to manage water use efficiently at operations in water-stressed locations
GM’s vision for a sustainable future includes the efficient use of resources such as raw materials and water.
With the automotive industry being material intensive, responsibly managing the materials used in our products and minimizing waste are important priorities. We drive efficiency in several ways:
- Using sustainable materials, such as those with recycled, bio-based or renewable content as inputs into our products.
- Reducing, reusing and recycling the resources used to manufacture our vehicles.
- Ensuring those resources can be further repurposed at the end of a process or a vehicle’s usable life.
- Adopting construction and manufacturing processes that minimize the use of energy and water. (Please see the Reducing Carbon Impact section)
These actions can reduce emissions at the onset by avoiding the mining and processing of virgin materials. They also keep waste out of landfills and allow us to find ways to create new value — the essence of the circular economy. Shifting toward more sustainable product materials also aligns with GM’s zero-emissions vision. With our suppliers as partners, we are focused on developing materials and processes that reduce CO2 emissions, waste and water usage. We start with the sourcing of our parts and components through vehicle manufacture and include emphasis on reducing waste sources.
As we transform our business to support production of electric vehicles (EVs), we are rethinking how those vehicles are made and designing them with a mindset focused on reducing environmental impacts.
The most environmentally friendly vehicle is not only electric — it’s also circular. Circularity is growing in importance to our customers. According to a 2019 survey by Accenture, more than half of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products designed to be reused or recycled. Beyond the environmental benefits, designing sustainable vehicles may result in increased customer loyalty.
We already enable, by mass, more than 85 percent reuse or recycling of our current vehicles at the end of their life. In early 2020, we announced a new commitment to sustainable sourcing of the raw materials necessary to support our product portfolio, including EV deployment on a commercial scale. By 2030, we aim to achieve at least 50 percent sustainable material content in our vehicles, measured by total vehicle weight. We have defined sustainable materials as those that do not deplete nonrenewable resources or disrupt the environment or key natural resource systems. In addition to this goal, we will continue to enable 100 percent reuse or recycling of EV batteries at the end of life. Focusing on each part of the equation — a material’s origin, its design into a part, and that part’s destination at the end of vehicle life — allows us to get closer to achieving circular economy principles. Through life cycle analysis (LCA), we can show a clear connection between the materials used in our products and our environmental impact. GM is investigating LCA tools that could help us make objective decisions about what materials have the best possible footprint.
With thousands of parts that go into a vehicle’s design, work toward our sustainable materials goal is complex and spans many GM functional areas, including materials engineering, product engineering, global purchasing and supply chain, sustainable workplaces and more. Initially these functional areas focus on metals, plastics and textiles material categories. Every component within these categories is being examined to determine what can be done differently or better. Strategies might include increasing recycled content or using bio-based materials.
Examples of sustainable materials used in GM vehicles include interior components made from a synthetic suede material containing recycled content, which is offered in the 2020 Cadillac CT4, Chevrolet Corvette, Camaro, Traverse and Blazer. We are also exploring the potential use of yarn made from recycled plastic bottles that do not compromise quality or design compared to nonrecycled plastic. With support from our supply base, the Color and Trim Design team has made a commitment to use at least 35 percent recycled plastic yarn in all future seat insert fabrics, and 100 percent recycled yarn in seat bolster fabrics, overhead fabrics, floor carpets and floor mats. Given GM’s global scale, this means significant amounts of plastic will be diverted from landfills.
Key to this work is ensuring that as conventional materials are replaced with more sustainable materials, vehicle performance remains constant in every type of driving condition and for the life of the vehicle. Once a sustainable material is identified, we must also consider at what point the new material is integrated into the cadence of vehicle design and production.
Beyond these examples, we are continually researching new and innovative materials that will help us mitigate our environmental impact while driving customer-focused design and innovation. Plant-based materials, bio-fabricated materials, regenerative farming and lower-impact leather tanning practices are among the emerging practices and materials that may someday be incorporated into GM products.
We also have established a companion sustainable materials workstream that is dedicated to sustainable packaging. A multidisciplinary group has been tasked with developing a packaging goal and collecting data to better understand GM packaging specifications and requirements. The group is working closely with suppliers and external partners to innovate current practices and embed circular economy principles in packaging procurement and design. The current priority for this new group is to develop our road map for success that takes into account the full life cycle of our packaging and carbon analysis of the various opportunities.
As part of this work, GM has partnered with WestRock as the preferred supplier for all consumer-facing packaging. WestRock prioritizes recycled content input in their sourcing, averaging 35 to 55 percent recycled content in corrugated boxes and 100 percent recycled content in coated boards. Any virgin material used in our packaging going forward is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).
A recent packaging success story has been around the ventilators, masks and face shields that GM is producing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Working with Menasha as our supplier, the five packaging boxes used for these products contain 33 to 95 percent recycled content with remaining materials coming from SFI-certified sources.
Recycled Content in GM Vehicles
GM is working to increase the sustainable materials used to make our vehicles. Here’s some of the progress we’ve already made. While these materials are not all available on all vehicles, each improvement provides valuable insights and brings us closer toward our goal.
made into fiber
of plastic diverted
Beyond using sustainable inputs in our vehicles, there are other ways we can reduce the volume of waste we generate and the impact we have.
GM has made steady progress in reducing our operational waste intensity over the past decade. As we approach the terminal date of our current 2020 manufacturing goals, we are formulating a new goal to build further upon progress to date. Our aspiration is to become the first zero waste automotive company.
As in the past, innovation and the adoption of new technologies will help us lead in this area. Our Bowling Green Assembly paint-shop system, for example, is using limestone to capture overspray, a practice that eliminates more than 400 tons per year of paint sludge waste. Likewise, GM’s design team donates scrap leather, vinyl and synthetic suede to the College for Creative Studies to be used by fashion students, and donates Corvette leather scraps to Pingree, a Detroit business that employs veterans with meaningful work. Pingree’s team of makers hand craft this leather into custom Corvette-branded accessories.
Reduce Waste Intensity by 40 Percent
Our Sustainable Materials Management function is allowing us to continually reduce waste through design, materials selection and repurposing of items that would otherwise go to waste.
Reach 150 Landfill-Free Sites
The closure of the Detroit Renewable Power facility, which converted waste to energy, negatively impacted our landfill-free plants in Michigan and Ohio.
At our Global Design Center in Warren, Michigan, the extended design team collects and cleans clay that is left over from creating vehicle models, which help designers more clearly visualize and refine the look of a finished product. Using metal detecting wands, the team meticulously removes any metal pins and processes the material into a new mixture. In one hour, six team members can completely strip one midsize vehicle model of salvageable clay, preventing it from entering a landfill.
Sending less waste to landfill also extends to our construction projects. In 2019, GM recycled about 14 million kilograms of concrete and uncontaminated asphalt, 27.5 million kilograms of metal scrap and 216,000 kilograms of plastic generated during construction. The recycled material was sent to accredited waste facilities for regeneration. Additionally, GM global facilities reused 11.5 million kilograms of concrete and uncontaminated asphalt.
Reducing waste is not only good for the environment — it benefits GM’s bottom line. Clay recycling efforts, for instance, saved the company nearly $1 million over a three-year period. We also participate in the Materials Marketplace, an initiative of the United States Business Council for Sustainable Development. The project, which brings together many companies within the United States and other areas of the world, is intended to help participating companies identify ways to reuse or exchange undervalued materials through an online database and establish new circular supply chains. By participating in the Marketplace, GM and other companies reduce their operational costs from sourcing and disposing of materials at each end of the product life cycle, lower the environmental impacts of our operations and have the opportunity to share and learn about best practices with peers in the automotive industry and other industries.
Employee Engagement on Waste Reduction
Because best practices account for so much of waste minimization efforts, environmental engineers in both manufacturing and nonmanufacturing operations receive state-of-the-art zero waste training. We also have introduced a company-wide sustainability course to support our new sustainability goals and launched the GM Sustainability Awards to recognize partners that contribute most to a sustainable future.
Employees can also get involved through Upcycle, a grassroots startup within Global Design Operations that applies design thinking to improve the sustainability and health of our community, campuses and products. The group’s accomplishments include reducing single-use packaging and condiments at our Design Center all-people meetings and starting a program to reuse coffee grounds as garden fertilizer. Other ongoing initiatives include encouraging employees to swap their personal waste bins for a potted plant, hosting a competition to design artwork for new reusable coffee cups, and exploring the possibility of offering only compostable and recyclable packaging within the Design Center’s food services. Upcycle’s ultimate goal is to empower all employees to make informed decisions about waste disposal.
Another example of how GM employees are finding creative ways to reduce waste is the composting program at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, where GM is headquartered. All office tenants and restaurants at the 5.5-million-square-foot complex now participate in the program, separating their food waste into designated bins placed on each floor. The scraps are used to create nutrient-rich compost that is used in urban gardens throughout the city, including GM’s Beaubien Garage rooftop garden. Produce from the Beaubien garden is donated to the local restaurant Andiamo Riverfront, which makes donations equal to the food’s value to an organization that serves Detroit’s homeless. In 2019 alone, 33,384 kilograms of scraps were composted at the Renaissance Center.
External Engagement and Partnerships
GM is a signatory to the EPA America Recycles Day pledge. As part of our commitment to reduce waste generation, we collaborate with EPA and other pledge signatories to enhance the nation’s recycling system, creating a sustainable path for a circular economy to protect the environment. To do so, we are working collaboratively with other companies in three groups to promote education and outreach, strengthen secondary materials markets and enhance measurement. We also are partnering with the U.S. DOE to collaborate on their zero-waste pilot program, which will provide methods for data tracking and benchmarking.
Another partnership, NextWave, is a collaboration between a group of companies and the nonprofit Lonely Whale Foundation to develop the first commercial-scale, ocean-bound-plastics supply chain. NextWave will develop a model that creates circularity for plastics, a resource that is largely being lost to the environment, where it not only loses value — it does harm. Having diverted 850 metric tons of plastic from oceans in just two years, the group hopes to keep more than 25,000 tons of plastics from entering the oceans by 2025. As a founding member of NextWave, GM has been inspired to turn off the tap on ocean-bound plastics by turning them into valuable lasting goods, including vehicle components and packaging applications. We are working with suppliers to make recycled yarn for our fabrics specifically from plastic waste that is intercepted before it reaches oceans.
Water is another valuable resource that we must manage efficiently. While GM’s operations are not overly water-intensive, we do use water in the vehicle manufacturing process and make it available for the people in our facilities.
We are committed to responsibly using water while taking actions that preserve water quality and conservation across our operations, in our supply chain and in the communities in which we operate. Our commitment is underscored by being named to CDP’s Water A List.
GM has committed to reduce the water intensity of its operations by 15 percent compared to a 2010 baseline. Our commitment beyond 2020 is to continue this work in response to the interconnected risks of water scarcity, pollution and climate change. Water usage is managed on a local basis, with each facility working toward its own targets for year-over-year improvement. Innovative approaches have allowed facilities to continue production without disruptions, even in water-stressed areas. For example, at our San Luis Potosí Assembly plant in Mexico, GM uses a Zero Liquid Discharge system to minimize the reliance on well water withdrawal. The system purifies and transforms wastewater into reusable water for the facility’s paint and machining processes, as well as irrigation.
Local facility knowledge provides information on water supply impacts for current operations, and we engage in the use of WRI Aqueduct, tools that map water risks such as floods, droughts and stress, using open-source, peer reviewed data, for future forecasting. We mitigate risks in current operations with either alternate supply or water reuse working with local utilities. GM engages with over 300 suppliers through CDP Water Supply Chain and other organizations like AIAG.
Going above and beyond, many employees volunteer with their site’s local watershed. For example, employees in Flint and Grand Blanc are located within the Flint River watershed, and they participate in river clean-up events and storm drain stenciling so that people know where their neighborhood drains go.
Reduce Water Intensity by 15 Percent
We kept water intensity increase to less than 1% in 2019 compared to 2018 with extreme water conservation, and began Water Treasure Hunts to find more opportunities. We plan to use Water Performance Contracting in 2020.