Perseverance enabled a 75-year old General Motors manufacturing facility in Rochester, N.Y. to go landfill-free. The journey took four years and included seven attempts to recycle a challenging oily filter sludge generated from a machining operation. With their achievement, GM's landfill-free facility count is at 109, more than any automaker.
We sat down with Gail Finkelstein, the plant's senior environmental engineer, to talk about the challenging process.
1. What does it mean for your facility to be landfill-free?
When you put one bag of trash to the curb each week, you're already sending more to landfill than this plant. Nothing from our manufacturing processes goes into a landfill. We reuse, recycle or convert to energy all waste from our daily operations.
2. How did you begin this journey?
We have a strong environmental legacy at this facility. Our plant's nearly 1,100 employees manufacture components to increase vehicle fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. In 2010, our corporate sustainability team challenged us to become landfill-free, and to do it cost-effectively. We started off by reviewing our waste data. Then, we did dumpster dives to find the most landfilled items. From there, we just began tackling each waste stream to find alternatives to landfill. It was hard when we got started, but once we got going, it seemed to get easier. Employees began to take the lead, and success helped build more success.
3. Did employees drive this initiative?
We certainly put employees at the center of the challenge. Their enthusiasm and participation were key to recycling paper, plastic and cardboard. They helped us to identify better spots to place our dumpster and recycling containers so that collection was more convenient. They also helped us design clearer labels for easier sorting. Their goal was to make recycling part of their daily process.
4. How did you communicate the significance of their participation?
We started by trying to develop a business case, that we could go landfill-free without a big impact on the budget. We knew we could generate revenue from recycling, and included that in employee communications. For example, our signs for cardboard collection let them know that GM receives 2 cents per pound if recycled versus paying 3 cents per pound to send it to a landfill. We also let them know who receives the material and what it becomes in its next life. It worked — we recycled more than twice as much cardboard as the year before! Employees loved the information, but they were actually more interested in doing it for the environment than for the money. Once we were successfully recycling all of our cardboard, we moved onto plastic. Employees plant-wide took the lead when it came to plastic recycling, identifying potential recyclables from their manufacturing processes. They even began to collect them before we were ready!
5. Your final challenge was to recycle an oily sludge from a machining operation. How did you go about tackling that?
This was our most difficult technical challenge. Our environmental experts from headquarters were a great help. They brainstormed with us, and helped us engage one of GM's suppliers, Mobile Fluid Recovery, to help. They helped us separate a mucky mixture of metal fines, filter paper, filter aid and oil that is produced by a machine that cuts metal for fuel injector and manifold components. The solution was to centrifuge it – spinning it like a high-speed industrial washing machine. The velocity makes excess oil pass through a filter to a nearby tote. The oil is filtered further to remove dirt and water, tested, and dumped back into the pit for reuse. The remaining dried filter paper, filter aid, and fine metal particles are converted into energy.
6. Perseverance was key to going landfill-free. Can you talk about some of your attempts?
We tried seven different methods. Everything from researching the use as feedstock in cement kilns or as foundry metal stock; separating and recycling the filter media; finding an alternative filter system; and even drafting a proposal to resize the filter equipment. That's really what's compelling about our journey; we didn't stop when things got tough. Everyone here was committed to finding a better way and we knew we could figure it out. It took us four years, but we found a solution.
7. What's next?
Even though we're now landfill-free, we'll continue finding even better ways to manage our waste, from not creating it in the first place, to finding ways to reuse versus recycle. Being landfill-free is really an on-going process, it's not something you just achieve and live with. Plant manufacturing processes change frequently, and you have new challenges every day. Our goal is to continually reduce our environmental impact.
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