GM Leads Auto Industry in Manufacturing Sustainability

Environmental criticism of the automobile industry has historically focused on vehicle emissions, but automakers' manufacturing facilities have significant environmental impacts as well. A study from Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering estimates that the production of a single car requires about a tenth of the energy that a 25 MPG vehicle uses in 150,000 miles on the road.

While many car companies have taken strides to improve energy efficiency and waste recycling at their plants, General Motors is miles ahead of its competition.

Last week, the Detroit-based automaker announced that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has awarded a 2012 Pollution Prevention Award to General Motors Fairfax Assembly & Stamping, which makes the Chevrolet Malibu and Buick Lacrosse. The plant, located in Kansas City, Kan., was awarded for its efforts to reduce energy use and actively recycle waste.

"Our facility is dedicated to going above and beyond compliance with environmental laws to ensure we adhere to responsible environmental business practices," said Megan McCutcheon, Fairfax Assembly & Stamping's environmental engineer. "At Fairfax Assembly, we consider environmental impact throughout all aspects of our business operations and manufacturing."

The plant's achievements include reducing annual CO2 emissions by more than 20,000 tons, minimizing landfill use through recycling byproducts like scrap metal, and replacing lights with more energy-efficient fixtures.

Taken with GM's other recognitions for environmental performance, this latest award represents just another notch in GM's sustainability belt. In 2011, GM received the EPA's ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year award for energy and greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and the company recently added an industry-leading 100th landfill-free facility in Lansing, Mich.

"Landfill-free" has no universally recognized definition because the EPA does not regulate waste-reduction efforts. Some car companies, including Toyota, consider a plant landfill-free if less than 5 percent of non-saleable waste is sent to landfills (scrap metal, pure scrap plastics, and other byproducts are typically resold). GM does not truck with such disingenuousness - "landfill-free" means zero waste to the landfill - and GM has more of such facilities than any other automaker by far.

Combined, GM's worldwide facilities recycle or reuse more than 90 percent of the waste they generate. For instance, scrap cardboard from various GM plants is recycled into a sound absorber on the Buick Lacrosse and an interior roof for the Buick Verano. GM has reduced total waste by at least 43 percent since it began tracking waste at its plants in 1997.

What's more, the Michigan car company's efforts are not U.S.-centric: GM's landfill-free facilities are fairly evenly distributed throughout the globe. The company has 44 such facilities in North America, 31 in Asia Pacific, and 22 in Europe.

GM's waste reduction plan is also impressive because it lacks the public relations appeal of other car companies' environmental initiatives. For example, Toyota's Derbyshire plant in England, clad as it is in 17,000 solar panels, "looks like a gigantic lake of silver." This carbon-free method of electricity production is a nice image to present to the public, but GM's less glamorous waste reduction efforts outstrip the impact of Toyota's solar plant.

Image Credit: General Motors