How Refreshing: GM Suppliers Give New Life to Recycled Water Bottles

Apr 25, 2016 12:15 PM ET

More than half a million water bottles from five General Motors facilities are getting a second life as the company seeks out more sustainable ways to manufacture products and contribute to communities. What started as an idea about five years ago has evolved into a robust supply “web” that produces three fleece-like materials that benefit products, plants and people.

Here’s how this plastic is being reincarnated:

  • Seven bottles help make a fabric insulation that covers the Chevrolet Equinox engine to dampen noise
  • Six bottles help make an air filtration component used in 10 GM facilities to protect air quality
  • 31 bottles help make the insulation for the Empowerment Plan coat that transforms into a sleeping bag for the homeless

The water bottles would have been recycled—likely overseas where most plastics head after they get tossed in a recycling bin. But GM sought out a way to design a closed-loop process where it could keep the material local, channeling it back into its plants and products. GM calls it the “Do Your Part” project as everyone plays a role in its success.

“This supply web represents what we want to do more of in Michigan as we boost our recycling numbers from curbside to the loading docks,” said Matt Flechter, recycling market development specialist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “We want to turn waste into opportunities and jobs.”

The project produces both economic and environmental benefits. Less energy is consumed by sourcing recycled content. On average, production of a pound of the Repreve recycled staple fiber saves enough energy to run a compact fluorescent light bulb for 22 days. Plus, the material substitution for the Chevrolet engine cover provides the same customer benefits of reducing engine noise for the same cost as sourcing virgin material.

More companies are pursuing these types of creative methods to keep materials in use.

Andrew Mangan, executive director of the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development, says that the take-make-dispose model is being challenged as more people see the benefits of a circular economy.

“From closed-loop recycling to helping launch material reuse networks, GM is thinking differently and getting other companies to join in,” he said.

The “Do Your Part” initiative is an example of the power of supply webs—an alternative to a traditional, often linear supply chain. As additional business opportunities are created from an original idea, satellite projects develop, and over time, you’re driving more social and economic impact from the many connections made.   

For GM, the concept started with a car part and evolved into plant air filters that will soon be sewn by people at a jobs development and training center in Flint, Michigan. Then the company worked with businesses to optimize the material so it could serve as insulation for 6,500 Empowerment Plan coats for the homeless, which are made by previously homeless women and distributed for free in 38 U.S. states and nine countries.

All told, 11 organizations make up this web that guides material from bottle to fleece, sprouting off in three directions with different impacts. 

“We need to look at projects at a systems level whenever possible – evaluating their potential economic, environmental and societal benefit,” said John Bradburn, GM global manager of waste reduction. “Everyone is connected and our collective talents and commitment can result in meaningful projects that can make a positive impact in our lives and in our communities.”

The challenge is in finding those organizations with the right capabilities and mindset, and introducing them to other partners who they could do business with to further the mission.

Each organization engaged brings specific capabilities. Hamtramck Recycling bails the plastic bottles collected from GM’s world headquarters at the Renaissance Center, Warren Technical Center, and Orion Assembly, Flint Tool and Die, and Flint Engine plants. Clean Tech Inc. washes the bottles and converts them to flake. Unifi Manufacturing, Inc. recycles the bottle flake into resin. Palmetto Synthetics processes the resin to create fibers and William T. Burnett & Co. processes the fibers into various forms of fleece, serving all three applications.

  • Rogers Foam Corp. die cuts the fleece and EXO-s attaches it into the nylon cover for the Chevrolet Equinox V6 engine.
  • Filtration Services Group works with New Life Center to sew the air filters, which are sent to 10 GM facilities.
  •  Carhartt, a workwear company established in Detroit in 1889, cuts the coat insulation to size for The Empowerment Plan.

GM also is working with various organizations such as Schupan Recycling in Flint to collect additional water bottles to plug into the project. It could certainly grow from here, with more collection points to be added and new businesses to join the web.