Managing Resources More Sustainably with General Motors’ John Bradburn

January 17, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re truly honored to have John Bradburn on with us. He’s the Manager of Waste Reduction Efforts at the wonderful and iconic and worldwide brand, General Motors. Welcome to Green is Good, John Bradburn. JOHN BRADBURN: Hi, John. Great to be with you and hi, everybody out there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s great to have you on, John, and I want to get to GM and all the important work you’re doing there but before we get there, give us the John Bradbury story first. Give us your journey and how you even came to this place at GM and to the important relevant work that you’re doing there. JOHN BRADBURN: Okay. Well, it’s really about finding your niche and ever since I was a young boy, I loved the outdoors. My family is very outdoor oriented family, from my dad and my grandfather. They hunted and fished and they camped and really spent all of their recreational time outdoors so I developed a great love for the environment that way, just in awe of the wonderful foliage and the fall here in Michigan, the animals, the streams, the clarity of the water, the trout, the amazing colors that some of these birds and fish would have. I would look at for instance, Wood Duck, and just see the sheening of feathers and then pheasants and that sort of thing and it was just an amazing type of thing to see. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about did you dream to grow up and do something with regards to the environment or did you have an epiphany along the way or how did this all happen? Because you’ve been at GM for many years. When did you evolve into sustainability and environmental work? JOHN BRADBURN: Yeah. I think it’s about capturing opportunities but also, creating opportunities. In other words, when you have a particular job and you’re doing the job function, whether you’re being at home doing your work at home or in your office or in my situation, an industrial setting, you tend to gravitate towards things that interest you as well so you do your job. You look at other things and see things that interest you and work towards those. Management sees those things and they then will typically work you into those scenarios so the job that I have today didn’t exist and it was kind of molded and shaped due to some of the successes we had at GM over the years. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so nice,k and so now, you’re the Manager of Waste Reduction Efforts and so for our listeners out there, I’m on my iPad as we’re chatting here today, John, and I’m on your website called GMBeyondNow.com. It’s basically telling the GM environmental story and again, it’s GMBeyondNow.com for our listeners who want to follow along as we chat here. Can you share a little bit about your passion, specifically to reducing, reusing, and recycling in creative unique ways and how you’ve brought that to GM and engaged that amazing legacy brand into this whole new Sustainability Revolution? JOHN BRADBURN: It’s really about visioning things in a different way so in other words, if you see something and you see it in its originally intended purpose and it is used for that purpose, once it’s done, what else can it become? That’s the challenge and in doing so, a lot of times maybe it needs a slight alteration or you may need to tweak something along the lines but you can typically create something else from that and in many ways, that also can be considered reuse and it also stems back from a time when I was young and being interested in understanding how things were made, how things were put together. I didn’t spend a lot of time reading when I was young. I spent time thinking about things and observing. I think that’s an important trait for young kids to be able to have time to do so for the parents, please consider that. Let the kids be creative and in doing so, as they evolve into adults, they’ll hopefully carry those traits on and learn more and do more. JOHN SHEGERIAN: At GM, what do some of your specific efforts include? What are some of the higher visible sustainable things that you’re doing include that you can share with our listeners so they can start understanding how you’re taking the legacy paradigm and you’re shifting it? JOHN BRADBURN: Well, out of all of our byproducts or in industry terms, some people call them waste. We don’t call them waste. They’re resources and they’re resources that are out of place. We look at those and we try to manage them in a better way continually. We have an umbrella program we call our Landfill-Free Program. We have about 107 operations around the world, of which don’t send any waste to those landfills and in doing so, they have to reuse it or recycle it. They have to find creative ways to become landfill free. It’s common and consistent around the world an I monitor it and even once we’re landfill free, we’re going to continually improve upon that so that’s kind of our signature program but it’s not the finish line. We want to continually improve. JOHN SHEGERIAN: A hundred and seven operations around the world are landfill free. That’s incredible. When you say something is landfill free, how much waste is avoided then from going to the landfill that historically was sent to the landfill? JOHN BRADBURN: Well, every year on average, we recycle or reuse about 2.5 million tons of material. Now, just to give a bit of a perspective, if you took that material and put it into the back end of Chevrolet Silverado pickups, parked them end to end, the line creative from those pickups would wrap around the world at the equator every year so that’s how much material we manage. It’s certainly a significant amount. We leverage volumes. We share best practices. We mentor other companies but we also learn from other companies. We’re members of consortiums and that sort of thing so it’s really a matter of sharing and learning so we all improve together. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Okay, so a lot of people, John, in your position or at other companies, not specifically to even the automobile industry, just other large companies, have pushed back from sustainability because they’re worried that it costs money or it’s going to overwhelm them from their core business model. Can you talk a little bit about the benefits of being environmental and sustainable and how they financially benefit GM and all the efforts that you’re doing in terms of your automobile core business? JOHN BRADBURN: Absolutely. All good sustainability projects have benefits and they need and they do have financial benefits as well. The amount of material I mentioned that we generate, our byproducts, generate a significant amount of financial value. We average plus or minus, around a billion dollars a year revenue from those various commodities and those commodities are again, continually managed so that we can even gain more revenue but I say that but our ultimate goal, our long-term goal, is to generate zero revenue and the reason for that is because we would consume the materials within the process. That’s the goal so that all of our inputs or products that we use in our processes are utilized in that process. Therefore, we become more efficient. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, like a closed-loop urban mining system inside of GM of keeping that waste out of the landfill but finding a new home for those resources within your own automobiles. JOHN BRADBURN: Exactly. We want to be as efficient as possible because really, to be sustainable is about being efficient. If you look at our history in this country, it’s really built upon efficiency improvements. If you look at what an engineer does, regardless of what engineering discipline they’re in, it’s about efficiency and an environmental engineer like I am, that’s our goal as well. How do we do something and make it be as good or better with less? And that is the ultimate goal. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that just joined us, we’ve got John Bradburn on. He’s the Manager of Waste Reduction Efforts at General Motors. You can look at a lot of the great work that John is doing at General Motors at GmBeyondNow.com. John, I’m on your site right now and I’m looking at some fascinating information and I want you to share with our listeners some creative examples of recycling and reusing that you’ve spearheaded at General Motors. JOHN BRADBURN: Okay. I’d be happy to, John. There’s been a few that we’ve done. One in particular is our Coat Project, we call it, and what we did was we got with some suppliers and created a small team of people and reached out to a young lady in Detroit named Veronica Scott who was making coats for the homeless in Detroit and other cities and the coats were made by women who were formerly homeless so it’s an amazing model. It’s an amazing example of entrepreneurship but also societal outreach so we had a fabric type material that’s a sound absorption material we put in our doors and it has some cutout pieces for door handles and things so if you can imagine a doughnut hole type scenario with this material that generates some scrap, and manufacturing scraps are a reality today of manufacturing to a certain extent, we worked with a supplier who then created a long rolled fabric from that product and we donated that to Veronica and the plan to make coats so basically, what we did was we took car parts and we created a fabric from that that now are used for coats serving people who have certain challenges in our communities so what it does is it creates a recycling opportunity, also, an opportunity to do outreach as well as community commitment and it touches upon several sustainability factors and that’s what we try to do at GM is to not just recycle, not just reuse materials, but to benefit other areas in need as well and that’s an example and there are more. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m looking at some of the photos on the site of Veronica Scott’s empowerment plan and what you’re doing with them and that is just wonderful, wonderful, wonderful work and like I said to our listeners out there, it’s GMBeyondNow.com. It’s really got a lot of information here. Part of what we do on the show also, John, is to empower our listeners to get more involved because for the most part, once our listeners understand that there’s more that we can all do, they want then to be part of the solution rather than to be part of the problem. What are some tips that you’ve learned in your journey both personally and professionally that you can share back with our listeners at large? JOHN BRADBURN: Okay. First off, share your ideas and mentor others but I would suggest that we listen to our elders. We listen to people who have been there. If we look at our history and understand some of the things that have been done along the lines of reuse and recycling and really being efficient with certain things, we’ll see that our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents all did things that may have been lost in generations that succeeded them but were really fantastic ideas, whether they be at home in reusing our coffee grounds in garden bedding or flower bedding or me, I’m a fishermen, we use our worm bedding. I take our aluminum cans that aren’t returnable and I smash them down and I turn that aluminum in and that buys my fishing license for the years. There’s just many things. I took an old pressure treated deck that somebody had tore out and I asked him for the boards, I flipped them over and the bottom side, which isn’t exposed to the elements is in really good shape and I made a deck from it. I took old wood pallets that had deck boards on them that were thin and I cut them up and I made shingles from them and put them on a woodshed and they’re holding up fantastically and they look as well as the cedar shakes that you buy for $100 a square in the store. There’s just many things. Try to use your imagination so listen to the elderly. Try to use the things that they’ve done over the years, from rewashing Ziploc bags to oh my, there’s just the canning, the gardening, all those sort of things were all about sustainability, helping others, working with wildlife, creating your own little ecosystem in your homes but do it with an imagination. Really, our imaginations are our limiting factor and putting those green dots together that is these ideas so that you end up with a good program in your business or your home. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For the business owners out there that are afraid to take the first step in sustainability, share some ways for them to get on the path and to have them understand that it’s really a journey. It’s not a beginning and an end and that it’s really worth their time economically and otherwise to get on the journey. JOHN BRADBURN: Yeah well , first I think that all business owners are actually doing some forms of sustainability. They may not recognize it as such yet but if you look at managing your material inputs in a good way and your outputs in a good way so that you save money or actually make money, that’s sustainable as well because to be a sustainable company, obviously you have to have a good economic condition as well as community. Community is very, very important in what you’re doing in a business, especially if you have the local business. Outreach is very important and your customers will see that but also, those who you reach to can very well become your customers in the future and make your community much stronger so again, look at what you’re doing today. Recognize that a lot of what you’re doing is sustainable as well and then set some goals. Set goals even if they’re simple but goals with continual improvement so every year you reassess them. For instance, you may say well, let’s reduce our amount of materials to a landfill by 10% this year, just things like that. Create a little bit of a game, a challenge. It can be fun. Maybe create a little bit of a challenge to the household or to your business work group to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to have a little game to see who can come up with the best reuse idea amongst our product line,’ things like that. It really can be fun and challenging and really, employee enthusiasm will benefit as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know John, we’re down to the last four minutes or so and again, I’m looking at your website and we touched on a lot of issues today, especially the landfill free facility concept, but there’s so many things that GM is doing to make a better world for all of us in terms of greener vehicles, energy efficiency, resource preservation. If you may indulge me, can you share with our listeners just a little tip of the iceberg on those? And then I want to finish the show with something. I’m on your website and I just read something so fascinating, the message to the youth. You’ve already said earlier to listen to your elders. Here’s a fact that I just read on your website. Half of the earth’s population is made up of young people under the age of 27 so the real opportunity is with our young listeners who are listening to you, John. They want to be the next John Bradburn and they want to change the world every day when they wake up. Can you share some thoughts with regards to GM, John Bradburn, and the youth out there and what they can do as we move forward? JOHN BRADBURN: Absolutely. We do a lot of work with youth. In fact, I was a Boy Scout leader for many years and many of our projects relate to the youth, such as our duck boxes that we make with the Chevy Volt battery chargers, duck boxes, bat houses, bluebird houses, we have over 500 of those houses out throughout North America now and most of them were made by kids with us and with our help so that ties us to the Chevy Volt and the many other vehicle lines that we have that get great mileage and our electric vehicles are doing very well so I would say to the youth set your goals as well. Keep in mind that as you go through school, it’s about getting good grade, It’s about the math, and the science and the technologies, that sort of thing but it’s also about observation and figuring out things on your own, how to do better. My laboratory is my barn. Your laboratory can be your clubhouse or your garage, that sort of thing. Your laboratory can be your room where you can do some experiments, as long as they’re safe. Make sure mom and dad work with that too but at any rate, that’s what helped me kind of figure things out as a young boy, understanding how things worked, so it’s really about our very cherished populations of our youth as well as our elderly learning from each other. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Love it. Down to the last minute and a half. What gets you out of bed in terms of GM and what’s the future hold for sustainability in the next year or two? What are you working on? JOHN BRADBURN: Oh my. I’ve got a lot of projects in the oven right now. GM has been very good to me over the years and many of us in allowing us to work these various angles that may not even exist today. Sustainability is such a good area to get involved in because it’s so vast. It’s difficult to know all the various angles of it and that’ primarily because most of them don’t even exist today. It will be someday a term that is somewhat taken for granted because people will do it anyway. They won’t think of these things. Down the road, it will just be done. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And we thank you for getting all the work done you’ve done so far and what you’re going to do in the future, For our listeners out there again, to see John’s great work at GM, it’s GMBeyondNow.com. John Bradburn, you are a sustainability visionary and truly living proof that green is good.