The TH Interview: John Bradburn, Senior Environmental Project Engineer at General Motors
We certainly haven't been shy about criticizing GM for its gas-guzzling SUVs (our extensive Hummer post archive alone is worth browsing through) and for continually dragging its feet on improving fuel economy standards. That doesn't mean, however, that we can't also dole out some praise for its environmental initiatives when praise it deserves: in the areas of recycling and waste-to-energy conversion, for example, the company has made some measurable progress in lessening its carbon footprint by switching several of its facilities to landfill-free status.
Its Baltimore plant, which will be responsible for manufacturing the new two-mode hybrid transmission, was just the latest to reach that landmark — joining the ranks of other zero-landfill facilities in Tonawanda, New York, Flint and Wixom, Michigan, Gunsan and Bupyeong, Korea and Kaiserslautern and Eisenach, Germany. "Landfill-free" essentially means that 100% of the waste generated during production operations will be either recycled, reused or converted to energy (i.e. not sent to landfills). The company claims that close to 97% of the waste materials will be recycled while 3% will be converted to energy at one of its waste-to-energy facilities. It all sounded impressive, but we wanted to dig into the story more — what was GM's stand on carbon offsets, for example, and did the transport of waste create a new carbon footprint? Fortunately, we had a chance to sit down and talk to John Bradburn, GM's waste "czar," who walked us through some of the finer points of the company's recycling operations. Bradburn, the recipient of 3 Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Environmental Excellence in Transportation awards, has helped GM eliminate about 1.2 million metric tons of waste over the course of his ten-year career.
The points he emphasized at length during our conversation were that GM's current operations were the result of several years' worth of recalibration and meticulous fine-tuning and that the company preferred to keep things local, local, local, with only a necessary modicum of corporate oversight. This, he explained, helped ensure that each facility maximized its efficiency by taking advantage of its specific strengths — whether it be for the purpose of recycling or converting waste to energy. It also helped streamline the process and encouraged individual innovation. GM's facilities in Germany, he mentioned, had been quicker to modernize and smooth out their operations than had been their North American counterparts.
Though he acknowledged that the transport of waste to and from waste-to-energy plants and recycling facilities would create a new carbon footprint, he stressed that GM was minimizing its impact by keeping most of its activities local. Also, by encouraging its suppliers to re-use and return shipping materials, it was helping to keep the amount of newly generated emissions low. He told us that all of GM's North American facilities were now recycling at least 88% of the waste they produced and that the EPA had recently inducted the company into its "WasteWise Hall of Fame."
On the issue of carbon offsets and credits, Bradburn told us that GM hadn't yet taken a clear position but that it was currently monitoring the credit market for signs on how to proceed. The cars that would first be taking advantage of its new two-mode hybrid transmission would be the 2008 versions of the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon. Later next year, GM also plans on making the transmission available on the Chevy Silverado, Cadillac Escalade and GMC Sierra — with more likely to come in the future.
"Waste is a resource out of place," Bradburn quipped as our interview came to a close. Say what you will about GM, its corporate policies and (of course) its vehicles, but that's one point we won't argue with.