General Motors of Canada: Assembly Plant Achieves Zero Waste to Landfill

At the core of the success of General Motors Landfill-Free Project at GM Oshawa Assembly Plant initiative lies the fact that the “team” for this project numbers approximately 3,000. Lead by Sr. Environmental Engineer, Douglas Sirrs, it was the employees at the plant who were directly and indirectly part of the successful implementation of their project.

As part of GM’s commitment to minimizing their environmental impact, and be a part of the global solution to climate change, the company aims to achieve 150 landfill-free sites worldwide by 2050. As of 2017, they have reached 96% of that goal having received landfill-free status at 142 facilities around the world, more than any other automaker globally. In Canada, GM has now made 7 of their 11 sites landfill-free with the Oshawa Assembly Plant and Canadian Technical Centre achieving landfill-free status in 2017.

GM defines zero waste as, “all waste from day-to-day operations managed by any method except landfill” and their approach to minimizing waste is to treat all waste materials as resources. They strive to manage their waste by applying the circular economy model to ensure that they are primarily reducing their resource-intensity, reusing materials wherever possible, and recycling leftovers or converting it to energy.

Diverting waste from landfill is a powerful method of reducing biodegradable municipal waste and global greenhouse gas emissions. Lessons learned from other GM landfill-free facilities were applied at the Oshawa Assembly Plant. These included utilizing tracked data and analyzing best practices. Cost-benefit analyses were performed and cost offset opportunities were identified so that that they could optimally proceed with the project while still maintaining their business success.

By engaging employees and building a culture of sustainability GM was able to optimize impactful change and minimize employee resistance. A sense of stewardship that will live on beyond the initial implementation of the project was actively fostered. It was important to ensure that sustainability and the determination to become landfill-free was ingrained in the plant’s culture before changes were orchestrated. With this in mind, a pilot project providing reusable lunch containers and meal recipes to encourage environmental awareness and interest in waste reduction was launched.

Aspects of the project such as waste elimination and recycling were gradually implemented prior to achieving landfill-free and are continually improved. Managing the facility’s by-products using methods other than landfill was an important first step of the implementation process.

GM then created a by-products inventory spreadsheet that enabled them to identify the types of by-products and the amount, how the materials were managed, how the materials will be managed upon landfill-free implementation, and identify the by-product suppliers (management company) for each stream. They also needed to validate that under the landfill-free program, materials sent to the processing facilities and subsequently landfilled by the processing centers will collectively not exceed 1%, by weight of the GM facility’s total waste production and identify additional costs that would be incurred to achieve zero landfill..

A highly successful “tri-station” waste and recyclable container system was integrated, providing the option to recycle at all collection locations. In addition, a cigarette recycling program was implemented through TerraCycle (a past Clean50 Project Award Winner), providing designated containers for cigarettes. Such programs allow GM to work with new partners to divert material, traditionally discarded as waste, and repurpose it into a resource for another product.

Paint sludge was reduced by 18%. This process involved decreasing water content and increasing solids from 36% to 45%. In addition, they increased their plastic recycling by an incredible 582%. Previously the plant recycled 0.91 kg of plastic/vehicle. As a result of the landfill-free project, they increased this to 5.29 kg of plastic/vehicle. Overall, the facility now recycles 95% of total waste, including scrap metals, with the remaining 5% converted to energy offsite.

Waste diversion is a key step forward in the pursuit of reducing our environmental impact and the success of the program goes beyond reducing the impact of one plant. The project is part of a larger corporate sustainability plan and the global collective mission to combat climate change. It synergizes with both other GM Canada initiatives such as wildlife habitat enhancement, community outreach, water reduction, renewable energy exploration, and innovative technological advancements.

By motivating employees towards sustainability GM was able to capitalize on the enthusiasm and ideas generated on all levels of the plant. Since the projects induction, there have been several incidents of employees inquiring about proper recycling and ensuring that they are engaging in correct material disposal. This has been a greatly rewarding outcome of the project, one that goes a long way in inspiring other Canadian organizations, companies that understand that participation of businesses is key to accelerating sustainable development and improving the state of our planet.