How green is your vehicle or EV? Considering waste, reuse, and recycling too

GM chief Mary Barra delivered a speech on electric vehicles at the CERAweek energy conference, and while she was doing that, CleanTechnica spent some time on the phone with another interesting person at the company, GM’s Manager of Global Waste Reduction John Bradburn. Barra made the case for electric vehicles from a zero emissions standpoint, Bradburn added a layer of zero waste context that fans of the Chevy Bolt and Volt can appreciate.

How Green Is Your Electric Vehicle, Anyways?

CleanTechnica has been sitting up and noticing that some electric vehicle manufacturers are taking sustainability to the next level up from zero-emission driving, by investing in renewable energy, sustainable materials and waste management.

Back in 2015, our sister site noted a Volt electric vehicle battery recycling project aimed at running a data center on wind and solar energy, and that’s just one example of GM’s zero waste mission.

A few years ago, GM summarized its lessons learned and offered a list of best practices in a document titled “The Business Case for Zero Waste.” One item that pops out in terms of reducing carbon emissions is this:

The corporation’s total elimination of waste is having an immediate impact on carbon dioxide emissions as well. During 2014, more than 10 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions were prevented from entering the atmosphere as a result of its reuse and recycling programs.

That waste related emissions angle is an important one for electric vehicle fans. Driving around in a zero-emission vehicle fine as far as that goes, but sustainable mobility goes beyond the tailpipe to include cradle-to-grave considerations.

Why You Can Love Your Bolt (Or Volt) Even More

Those sustainability considerations can add an element of long term brand value to the bottom line benefits of zero waste.

Brand value is becoming more important as consumers become more savvy about greenwashing, and look for companies with sustainability programs that really do make a difference.

With that in mind, let’s hear from GM’s John Bradburn (following comments edited for flow and readability):

At GM, our sustainability goals that reach way beyond just zero waste. Zero waste is a benchmark that people can relate to, but what we want to do it go beyond that.

Traditional recycling is something to aspire to, but when we can see something for what it can become, then we move into new territory and use these programs to benefit society, wildlife, habitat, and challenged communities.

In other words, GM is zeroing in on reclaiming and re-using, rather than simply throwing more material into the recycling stream. That opens up new opportunities for community engagement and corporate social responsibility. For example, GM is deploying its zero waste strategy to support the community gardening movement in Detroit and other communities. As Bradburn sees it, the company’s support ripples out to embrace a teaching and mentorship role:

I believe that when people touch soil and watch the miracle of growth, and add to the ecosystem, it really does touch people and helps them understand how important the environment is.

One part of the garden program involves repurposing steel shipping baskets to make raised beds for community gardens. The Chevy Volt also comes directly into play:

The Volt battery cover is a challenging plastic to recycle, but it can be repurposed. Take a section of the battery cover, flip upside down, put legs on it, and you can create a raised planter box for people who are elderly. It’s big enough for three tomato plants. They have gardened all their lives but now they can’t bend down, so this is perfect for them.

We also build and distribute these planters to physically challenged groups, for the very purpose of being able to garden.

If that is starting to ring some bells, you might be thinking of GM’s bat houses made from Volt battery covers. As Bradford emphasizes, that project is aimed at ecosystem rehabilitation including urban areas (think pest control) as well as suburban and rural habitats.

On Beyond Electric Vehicles

Our conversation included some observations about GM’s recent work in recovering waterborne plastic. Ocean plastic has been a huge issue for years and the media spotlight has recently intensified.

The interesting thing about GM’s interest is that ocean plastic is not generally an issue for the car industry. It’s more of a consumer-end problem. Nevertheless, GM has accumulated considerable expertise in waste recovery, and its involvement in the ocean plastic issue demonstrates how companies can apply their in-house sustainability programs to broader issues.

GM has been working with the nonprofit Living Lands and Waters Group (it also partners with the US Business Council for Sustainable Development) to tackle the river end of the ocean plastic issue, which is a logical place to focus because rivers are the major source of ocean plastic. Bradburn explains:

We did a zero waste Ohio River demonstration event in Cincinnati last year, in which we collected all of the various materials from the shoreline and recycled them.

Polystyrene foams are a prevalent type of plastic on the shoreline, so one of the interesting projects that came out from that is artificial rocks.

The styrofoam has stays in the river for a long time, and it gets pushed around in the mud. It naturally shaped itself into rocks, so basically what I did was dried and coated them to a material to look more like rocks.

They can be used for interior walls. It’s another example of how we need to look at things not as they are, but for what they can become.

Bradburn concluded with some thoughts on how GM’s zero waste leadership has helped to push waste management out from behind the factory gates to focus on broader sustainability issues — and how that reflects on electric vehicle ownership and intergenerational collaboration, too:

We believe very strongly about community outreach and commitment and the global environment. As a leader part of our job is to mentor others on how these sort of things are possible.

As an environmental professional, when I’m out in the field talking to people, everybody who has our vehicles loves them, they tell me how much they love their electric vehicles. There is a lot of great enthusiasm out there.

It really is going to be an interesting way of life in the future, when we look at all these technologies that are coming at us so fast. I feel strongly that we need to take the experience and wisdom of people who have been around a long time, and who have experienced life for many years, and combine that with the imagination and enthusiasm of our youth.

Circling back around to Barra’s comments last week, the CEO  had some interesting things to say about Bolt’s production numbers and the impact of the federal tax credit. In an interview with CNBC, Barra also emphasized the company’s commitment to an all-electric future with “zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.”

GM is also upping its interest in autonomous cars and the electric vehicle rental car side of things — like Ford, GM sees the plus side of diversifying outward from of the individual car ownership model to include various forms of car sharing.

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Photo: Chevy Bolt at North American Auto Show in Detroit by Tina Casey.