GM Adds Recycled Water Bottles to Its List of Raw Materials

John Bradburn shows off GM’s new material made from recycled plastic bottles.

John Bradburn has a truly interesting job. As global waste reduction manager, he is GM’s equivalent to a professional hunter-gatherer — roaming the forest and harvesting discarded materials to be utilized for useful purposes.

Having done this for a while, he’s gotten pretty good at it. Whether it’s turning oil-soaked booms from the Gulf oil spill into air baffles for the Chevy Volt, or transforming battery covers into wooden duck houses. It’s the reason why Bradburn received the White House Volunteer Service Award in 2015.

Last time we spoke, he had figured out a way turn cardboard shipping materials from various General Motors factories into sound-dampening headliners in the Buick Lacrosse and Verano models. He was also using plastic caps and shipping aids from GM’s Fort Wayne, Indiana, plant in radiator shrouds for the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups built there. He couldn’t see any reason why test tires at the Milford, Michigan, proving grounds couldn’t be shredded and used in the manufacturing of air and water baffles for a variety of vehicle models either.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Bradburn has now begun collecting used water bottles from employees at five GM locations and turning them into air-filtration elements to protect workers, sound-proofing for vehicles, and insulation to make outerwear for the homeless.

“Recycling is good, but viewing waste as a valuable resource that can be plugged into your operations or products is even better,” Bradburn told us.

“It’s about rethinking the process and finding more sustainable ways to manufacture products and contribute to our communities.”

GM works with a network of partners in this effort, with each partner providing specific capabilities. Hamtramck Recycling bails the plastic bottles collected from GM’s world headquarters at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, as well as its Warren Technical Center, Orion Assembly, Flint Tool and Die, and Flint Engine plants. Clean Tech, Inc. washes the bottles and converts them to flake. Unifi, 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. The part helps further dampen engine noise to deliver a quiet ride.
  • Filtration Services Group works with New Life Center, a nonprofit jobs development and training mission in Flint, Michigan, to make the panels for the air-filtration fleece, which is then sent to 10 GM facilities.
  • The coat insulation is sent to Carhartt, a workwear company established in Detroit in 1889, which cuts it to size for the Empowerment Plan. The program provides enough material to insulate 6,500 coats.

GM also is working with various organizations such as Schupan Recycling in Flint to collect additional water bottles to plug into the project. The car maker now has 131 landfill-free facilities around the world, a number that has steadily grown. The company recycles the equivalent of 38 million garbage bags of byproducts each year.

Image credit: General Motors