Driving For a Zero Emission Future with Breitner Marczewski and Geraldine Barnuevo

January 12, 2021

Breitner Marczewski is a Sr. Sustainability Engineer for General Motors, providing engineering support for the GM’s Zero Waste program globally. Marczewski holds a dual-bachelor’s degree, Science and Technology and Energy Engineering both from the Federal University of ABC, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He is a TRUE Waste Advisor from GBCI and holds a Six Sigma Black Belt certification and a master’s degree in Science Engineering and Technology Management from both Louisiana Tech University.

Geraldine Barnuevo is the Sustainability Senior Manager for General Motors based in Warren, MI. In this role, Geraldine manages GM’s corporate sustainability strategy function including short term and long term goal setting and the development of key initiatives to achieve progress in goal-specific areas important to advance the company’s vision toward a future with Zero Emissions. In addition to that, Geraldine is responsible for GM’s sustainability corporate reporting and engagement with external stakeholders including investors and industry associations. Geraldine has held positions of increasing responsibility in the environmental operations and environmental strategic programs organizations across several geographic regions and supporting multiple business units. Geraldine is passionate about sustainability, environmental awareness, and protection and has been working on these areas for over 20 years in the Automotive Industry.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I am so excited and honored to have with us today two great guests from General Motors. The wonderful and iconic brand General Motors is in the house today. We have got with us Geraldine Barnuevo. She is the Senior Manager of Environmental Strategies and Sustainability and her colleague, Breitner Marczewski is with us. He is the Senior Sustainability Engineer. Welcome to you both to the Impact Podcast.

Geraldine Barnuevo: Thank you, John. We are…

Breitner Marczewski: Thank you for having us.

Geraldine: Yes, we are super excited about being here with you today.

John: Hey, listen, we cannot be together. But technology at least makes us feel together. You are in Detroit today and in Michigan. I am in Fresno, California and the pandemic is still going on. But it is just lovely to be able to connect with two great people that are making the world a better place at your wonderful brand General Motors.

Before we get talking about all the great things you and your colleagues are doing at General Motors in sustainability, in the circular economy, and to make the world a greener and better place, can you both give a little bit of your background for our listeners who have not met you yet. How you even got here? Talk a little bit about your journey leading up to these wonderful and important positions you both have.

Geraldine: I am going to start. I have been with GM for close to 20 years now. I started my career in GM, Ecuador, South America. So as an environmental engineer, my background is in environmental engineering. From there, I moved into several organizations in General Motors in the environmental area and working in 11 countries on projects of different nature. During the last couple of years, I have been building the strategy around sustainability that will guide our work for the next 10, 20, 30 years. So very excited to be here today with you.

John: Well, thank you. Breitner, how about a little bit of your background?

Breitner: Sure. Thank you for having me today. I am new to the company. I have a little bit over five years with the company. My background is actually in energy engineering. I always had this passion for sustainability. So I venture myself to go to engineering college in Brazil. In Brazil, I started my journey with General Motors in the facilities group. Then I moved to the United States, and I started my journey with the energy group in GM, North America. I stayed with the group for about three years. Because I always had this desire to learn more about sustainability, and I want to go to the environmental side, now I have the pleasure to work with Geraldine in sustainability and environmental as well.

John: Wonderful. This is just a great honor for me because GM has been on our show five times before 2015 when we went on hiatus. To have you guys back on and to see all the great and important things you are doing, it is so important to be able to platform that and share that with our listeners around the world.

For our listeners out there that want to also see and read more about all of Geraldine’s and Breitner’s and their colleagues’ great work at GM, please go to www.gmsustainability.com.

It is a great website. I am on it right now. It has a massive amount of information and I believe you will be blown away as I am by all the important and great things GM is doing. The first question I have today is for Geraldine. Geraldine, can you talk a little bit about the GM zero-emission strategies that you have and what that means to GM, and how you are going about attacking zero-emissions at General Motors.

Geraldine: Sure, John, my pleasure. At GM, our work is driven by our vision for a zero-emission future. We came up with that a few years ago, and now we are putting plans around that. This mission has guided our efforts to reduce our impact, including a transition to electric vehicles. Powering our operation with renewable energy, adhering to clean manufacturing, and engaging in circular economy practices. Just a couple of weeks ago, Mary Barra, our CEO, made big announcements for GM. We proudly announced that we will be allocating more than twenty-seven billion dollars of capital and engineering resources to our EV and AV programs. That is just the beginning.

John: Wow. That is fascinating. Twenty-seven billion dollars. Wow, that is a huge chunk of money. Breitner, for you, can you share a little bit about your zero waste approach at GM and landfill-free program?

Breitner: Yes, and those two definitions are used interchangeably but there is a very good difference between them. I will start to give you a little bit of background on the landfill-free program. So it was established around 2010, and it aimed to reduce the amount of materials we discarded to a landfill by any means. This is important. Any means.

This program improved several manufacturing processes where our teams looked at waste as a byproduct or a raw material for different applications. This mindset had a great effect over the years as our recycling activities generated more than a billion dollars in recovered value. That is mainly from recycling scrap metal from our operations.

As we are now approaching the end of those sustainability goals, the company is now switching to a zero-waste approach where we not only want to keep our waste away from landfills but also from incineration. Those incinerators may have energy recovery, and we are going away from that. This new global goal will divert 90% of our waste away from landfills and incinerators by 2025. Once we achieve this goal, we will keep increasing that percentage to higher levels until we reach 100% of the diversion rate.

John: So the evolution you said is moving away from landfill-free to now zero-waste. That is the future for GM.

Breitner: Correct, but you need to understand the component that we are also moving away from waste incinerators with or without energy conversion.

John: That is so interesting. I tend to agree with what you are saying. I think waste incineration is an industrialized past, that it is great for more companies like yours to move beyond. I think with your leadership on this, others will be signaled to look similarly at the hazardous materials that come out of incineration plants and move away from that. I think that is awesome.

Breitner: Correct. The main reason for this change is to further drive innovation in the recycling industry. We want to create new partnerships with universities, OEMs, and our supplier-base as well. So essentially, what we are doing, we are baiting the take-make-dispose line of consumption and making it more circular.

John: So that is where the circular economy comes into GM.

Breitner: That is correct.

John: Got it. Geraldine, talk a little bit about renewable energy. Is GM involved with the renewable energy movement in terms of how you access your energy and how you run your plants? Share a little bit about your vision on renewable energy issues.

Geraldine: Well, we have been working in renewable energy for the last 10 years. But during the last few years, we had a lot of advancement in this area to the point that we are committing that by 2040, we will source 100% of our electricity needs globally in all the markets from renewable sources, from green electricity, if you will.

We will do that by 2030 in the US, which is a very bold commitment to procure that energy from sources like wind and solar. We will be more than 50% there by 2023. That is how we are signaling the need to move away from fossil fuels.

It is fantastic that we have this big commitment to…

It is easy not to move from ice[?] to EV cars. But as important as that is the source of electricity that you use for those cars. So we want to send a signal to the market. We want to send a signal to the consumers. We have seen a really great response from investors and other stakeholders interested in this area.

John: That is so interesting. So it is not only important in terms of how you run GM and it is good for business in terms of your sustainability and renewable energy, specifically initiatives. But it is also important for your constituents in terms of the new generation of young consumers that are voting with their Pocketbook and also for Wall Street to see that you are a leader from this perspective.

Geraldine: That is correct. We want to be a leader with the new commitment that we are making. Some of those were already announced this year, and a few of the ones that we are still working on will be announced next year, including some very exciting news around carbon neutrality. We plan to be a leader in the US but also a mentor to our suppliers, and also a sustainable community corporate partner for everybody, for GM, and overall GM.

John: Right. Breitner, go back to the zero-waste approach that you are moving to. Is that an easy decision to make internally and make that happen? Are there roadblocks in terms of your desired diversion rates that you have to consider and figure out how you are going to overcome?

Breitner: Yes, it all comes down to doing the right things. We had several discussions and we understood that the challenges are great, especially when you want to divert 90% of everything you generate as waste from landfills. So just imagine yourself at home, look at your trash can. How can you divert 90% of the contents from the landfill? So, when you look at the zero-waste approach, most of the low hanging [inaudible] have already been collected during the landfill-free program.

So I will say the main roadblocks could be divided into two parts, the internal and external. In the internal part, we need to segregate better our waste streams, especially [inaudible] hazardous waste. So this way you help the waste collector to recycle that material better.

The second one will be the conflict you have to spend in capital to implement projects with low return on investment, but that can drive waste reduction. Finally, you need to invest in innovation to divert high to recycle waste streams, like our foundry things from our casting operations. Regarding external roadblocks, the main ones are the commodity prices such as oil that has a huge impact on the cost of virgin materials to make plastics. Also, there is a lack of outlets for certain waste streams in the United States. If you at the recyclability rates of the country, the US recycles 35% of their total waste. We at GM, recycle 84% globally. So this only shows that there are a lot of challenges, but we truly believe that by working together, we will be able to tackle and create a circular economy that will reduce our natural resources, benefiting the communities where we live and work.

John: Wonderful. For our listeners who have just joined us, we have got Geraldine Barnuevo with us today and Breitner Marczewski from the great and iconic brand General Motors. To learn more about what they are both doing with their colleagues at General Motors in sustainability and circular economy, please go to www.gmsustainability.com. Geraldine, talk a little bit about the recent investments and launch of electric vehicles that GM is making, both in different sectors in recent investments and also the separate launch of electric vehicles, and how that is actually going right now.

Geraldine: Well, for GM, vehicle emissions account for 77% of our carbon footprint and that is why we are so committed to this all-electric future. By mid-decade, we intend to sell a million EVs per year in our two largest markets, which are North America and our joint ventures in China. So that is our first big step. Along with that, we are planning to launch thirty new global EVs by 2025. So as you can see, that is where we are investing the twenty-seven billion of capital in engineering, including our battery manufacturing, which includes the investments in our battery manufacturing plant in Lordstown, Ohio. The goal is that 40% of the company, US employees, will be battery electric vehicles by the end of 2025.

John: Got it. That is wonderful. Breitner, what other sustainability initiatives are you excited about besides zero-waste that you are touching or getting involved with now? Because I know GM works many years out. As you said, you have goals for 2025, 2030, 2040. I mean, you guys are both global citizens, and you work many years in the future at this amazing company, General Motors. What are some of the other sustainability initiatives that get you excited that are going on right now?

Breitner: Yes, I am passionate about partnerships. I think we need to work together to solve the massive challenges that lie ahead in terms of sustainability. To that, GM is involved in several fronts to mitigate our footprint. The company is a signatory of the EPA, America Recycles Pledge. We are working with the group on three different pillars. Education and outreach, we want to educate communities on what can be recycled and how it will be recycled. We want to strengthen the secondary market materials, so we are targeting high quality, contaminant-free recycled materials that can be easily incorporated into products and back into the economy. The third pillar is enhancing measurement. This one is very key because we will help to develop scientific measurable goals supported by consistent terminology and data collection. This is very important. Consistency in the recycling industry is the key to achieve greater goals.

John: Got it. Geraldine, you have been doing this now for 20 years or so at GM, and you have a long history of success. Since you are a global citizen and have been to different countries. You are not just an American who grew up here and does not have a worldview. Talk a little bit about where sustainability, circular economy, and ESG is going in that. When I got into this industry of recycling, it was before Al Gore won for Inconvenient Truth.

Now, I saw a huge rise of interest in it in America. But I saw Europe and Asia, especially geographically challenged countries that are smaller, obviously France and UK and Italy and of course our friends in Japan and South Korea. All we are doing this generationally, two generations ago at least, and was part of their cultures and DNA.

Where do you think we are going now with the reemergence of great activists like Jane Fonda and then the young activists like Greta Thunberg? Is circular economy behavior and sustainability and ESG here to stay in America? Is this a trend that is going to continue to grow in our lifetimes and beyond? Or is it going to wax and wane like we have seen it before? What are your thoughts, Geraldine?

Geraldine: Well, the millennials and we have done studies on this, to understand the sentiment of our customers and in particular, millennials and Generation Z now, right? They are very interested in companies that do the right thing that they are willing to invest in and buy products that create and that connect the purpose of the company to a sense of social value. It is something that we saw maybe starting 10, 20 years ago in Europe, we are starting to see that here. We can see now in our employees the desire to be part to ride these waves. So it is very exciting to be here and now.

In terms of what we are doing, in addition to our goals in the area of climate change that we already discussed and in the area of waste reduction, we are also working with our supply base. So we are working with 300-plus of our suppliers to achieve at least 50% sustainable material content in our vehicles by 2030. So think about that, we are hoping that half of the vehicle will come from some sort of sustainable process of biomaterials, metal with recycled content by 2030. It is a very ambitious target, but we aim with these to transform our business and support the production of not only electrical cars but also circular ones.

John: Interesting. Breitner, for you, you are a part of the younger generation, let us just say, than I am. I am 58 now. What are your thoughts on working for GM? I find it ironic that Detroit, one of the most important cities in Michigan that was greatly part of the Industrial Revolution, and now at GM, you really are both part of a company and leading the way on the circular economy and sustainability revolution now. That is interesting, ironic, but also exciting, I am sure for both of you. Breitner, what are your thoughts on the circular economy, ESG, and where we are going from a different generational perspective than mine, let us just say?

Breitner: Yes. My thoughts around that is when I started with General Motors way back in Brazil in 2014, I have no idea the company had a sustainability team. It was so important for the company to operate sustainably that it was really impressive. When I came to the United States here and looked at the headquarters, the whole organization, it is like you are in the mothership now and you see everything happening for a reason. The reason is we want to do the right thing. We want to be here for the next 100 years. We do not think in the short term insight. So from my perspective, that perspective, I thought it was wonderful the company had that view. However, if you think more holistically, you will start to understand that there are opportunities to save costs, improve your bottom line. You become a more profitable company when you operate more sustainably. There are also lots of investors looking to invest their funds in companies that operate sustainably. So it is totally understandable why more and more companies are embarking into this sustainability journey.

John: Well, the constant theme that through today’s show and everything I have learned throughout the years, interviewing great guests from GM and other large organizations like yours is when you both lead the circular economy and sustainability revolution at GM, it truly moves the needle because like you said, you not only affect your vendors and your constituents but the messaging that you give to everybody else is it is time to get on board. That is what is so exciting. When you talk about how many vendors are part of making a car and that they need to also get on board if they want to stay a vendor is fascinating. I think it is fascinating. Geraldine, I am going to turn it over to you and of course, Breitner, you could chime in as much. But you both are amazing people. I am grateful for your time today. I want you both to have last thoughts on not only GM, but where we are going as a whole and any other last thoughts to wrap up the show because I want you both to have the last word here.

Geraldine: Well, I am excited about the future. Stay tuned to the news that are going to be coming out in the next month or so. As I said, we are committed to an all-electric future. We want to be the leader, the most environmentally-friendly vehicle company in the world and not just electric but it is also around circularity, having great partnerships with our suppliers, with our investors, with our communities, and with our employees.

Breitner: Yes, and I am very excited to see the new products coming on. You have probably heard about the new Hummer EV. It has a range of 350 miles with the full charge. So it is really impressive. I am also very optimistic with the investments in autonomous vehicles that will reduce further crashes on the road. So I think it is the revolution that we are experiencing in the transportation field. So I am very excited to see where this will going to lead us.

John: I just want you both to know you both have an open invitation because so much important news is constantly coming out of GM in sustainability and circular economy. I want you both to know you have an open invitation, both collectively and singularly to come back on the show and talk about any new initiatives or announcements that you have. Geraldine, you have done a great job of teasing some of them already. Please feel free to come back on and continue to message this. Our listeners love it. We get great feedback on it. I just want to wish you both a very happy and healthy holiday season. I am just so honored to have you both on today. You are both making important impacts and making the world a better place. Continue to take care. Stay safe, stay healthy, and thank you for being guests on the Impact Podcast today.

Geraldine: Thank you, John. Same for you and your family.

Breitner: Thank you. Have a wonderful day.