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General Motors in hot pursuit of 'landfill-free' facilities

The auto giant aims to eliminate all waste at half its plants by 2010.

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In the city of San Francisco, which has committed to being landfill-free by 2020, "we discuss waste as a design flaw," says Jared Blumenfeld of the city's Department of the Environment. "Ultimately, if something is designed correctly, whatever it is, there shouldn't be any waste." Residents and businesses there currently recycle or reuse 69 percent of all garbage.

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"There's no CEO in the nation who would ... say, 'Oh, we think that waste is a good thing.' Waste is just eating into their profit margin and reducing their efficiency," says Mr. Blumenfeld. "So getting to zero waste, from a corporate perspective, makes a lot of sense."

Take GM's Tool and Die Plant in Flint, Mich., the latest facility GM has declared to be landfill-free. It makes polystyrene, or Styrofoam, patterns that are used to create cast-iron dies that stamp out body parts for new vehicles. Consequently, the plant generated huge amounts of polystyrene waste.

"We had a semi going back and forth all day long taking scrap to the landfill," recounts John Lanser, a senior worker at the plant. "We knew that the expense of the landfill had to be sky-high and … that it won't take long before we're going to need another landfill because this stuff doesn't break down at all."

The drive to recycle came from workers, with no prompting from headquarters. Mr. Lanser's supervisor found a way to return the scrap to the supplier for reuse, and this year the Flint plant will recycle enough polystyrene to make 42 million coffee cups. The cost of landfilling all the material had been so great that recycling it actually cut plant operating costs.

It will take time, however, for all GM plants to be landfill-free. So far, most plants doing away with trash have been nonassembly plants. Facilities that produce cars create the most difficult waste to recycle or reuse: paint sludge.

"When you paint a vehicle, not all the paint actually adheres itself to the car.... The extra paint is captured in a water system and there's a sludge that's generated," says Michael Schafran, senior environmental engineer at GM's Orion Assembly Plant in Lake Orion, Mich. "We have not yet found a home for [the paint sludge] on the recycling side."

GM is looking into ways to use the sludge in a waste-to-energy program that would burn it to make electricity.

The US Environmental Protection Agency does not certify or advocate zero-waste programs. However, it has "found that many of our stakeholders are finding that ... the basic concepts ... of zero waste work for them," says Thea McManus of EPA's municipal and industrial solid waste division.