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Unless a company or organisation is 100% efficient, it will generate waste. The key is to treat that waste as a resource that is merely out of place.

General Motors (GM) manages its byproducts in one electronic tracking system with a goal of recovering all resources to their highest value. All materials are regarded by the company as useful and marketable.

This mindset has produced several reuse opportunities for GM and has helped it achieve an industry-leading 131 landfill-free facilities around the world. For example, used tires from the company’s proving grounds are recycled to manufacture air and water deflectors for the Chevrolet Volt; plastic packaging from GM plants is mixed with other materials to make radiator shrouds for the Chevrolet Silverado; and cardboard from its assembly plant near Detroit is turned into the headliner of the Buick Verano.

To give life to more of these types of projects, GM helped launch a reuse network called the Reuse Opportunity Collaboratory (ROC) Detroit in 2014. The organisation brings together Michigan institutions, businesses and entrepreneurs to develop zero-waste partnerships in which one organisation’s waste becomes another’s raw material. GM, Pure Michigan Business Connect, the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., CXCatalysts and the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development worked to transform the concept into a reality.

The first event included a discovery session where participants discussed their top resource challenges, from chemicals to plastics and construction and demolition materials. Then, they brainstormed how those materials could be repurposed and who, from startups to artists to other big companies, could benefit as a result.

The collaboration strengthens GM’s supply web and provides more options for creative reuse while also boosting the economy as a whole. Entrepreneurs make more contacts so they can build their operations, businesses create partnerships with new companies and socially minded organisations get introduced to new sources of material.

The environmental benefit is clear—keeping materials in use and out of the ground. Energy costs decrease, as well, as reuse is even better than recycling in this regard. ROC Detroit continues to build its network by recruiting suppliers and users, collecting and analysing data for synergies and meeting to share, network and generate opportunities.

“The collaboration strengthens GM’s supply web and provides more options for creative reuse while also boosting the economy as a whole.” – John Bradburn

Taking this concept to another level is the U.S. Materials Marketplace. The organisation also helps companies of all sizes find second uses for byproducts. GM co-championed this program, which is a joint effort among the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Corporate Eco Forum and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Through this system, companies and organizations can view and purchase used materials through an online database at a price lower than they would elsewhere, and less waste is put into landfills as a result. The marketplace won a Circulars award in the “Digital Disruptors” category, which was announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

GM’s latest closed-loop recycling example is called “Do Your Part.” More than half a million water bottles from five GM facilities are getting a second life as three fleece-like materials that benefit products, plants and people. Employees are engaged and ensure they put their bottles in the right bin.

The company communicated what this plastic will become, reinforcing how each person plays a role in making that transformation happen. GM broke it down to how many bottles it takes to create the products:

  • Seven bottles help make a fabric insulation that covers the Chevrolet Equinox V-6 engine to dampen noise—a product built and assembled at landfill-free plants.
  • Six bottles help make an air filtration component used in 10 GM facilities to protect air quality—a product assembled at New Life Center, a nonprofit jobs development and training mission located in Flint, Michigan.
  • Thirty-one bottles help make the insulation for the Empowerment Plan coat that transforms into a sleeping bag for the homeless. GM is donating enough material for this nonprofit to make 6,500 coats.

It’s important to note that these water bottles would have been recycled—likely overseas where most plastics head after they get tossed in a recycling bin. But GM sought a way to design a process where it could keep the material local, channeling it back into its plants, products and the community.

All told, 11 organisations form this web, guiding material from bottle to fleece, with impacts sprouting off in these three different directions. It’s important to make connections and to find organisations with the right capabilities and mindset.

Even after a project is completed, it’s beneficial to carve out time to communicate the success and to share best practices. The goal is to create awareness of the possibilities, helping people see items not as what they are but as what they can be.

Companies and organisations of all sizes can take part in the circular economy by engaging in online materials matchmaking, connecting with partners and suppliers that have different experiences and expertise and giving waste a second life within their own operations.

Whatever paths companies decide to take, this growing movement will help to ensure these resources don’t go to waste.

The author is the global manager of waste reduction for Detroit-based General Motors, www.gm.com.