GM's Plan For "Zero Waste" Operations

The New York Times reports:

General Motors said last week that 62 of its manufacturing plants (representing 43 percent of its global production) no longer send any production waste to landfills. The company’s goal, first stated in 2008, is for zero waste at half of its operations by the end of 2010, and it’s 87 percent of the way there.

Zero waste, or “Nil to Landfill,” has been a rallying cry in Europe, and it is national policy in New Zealand, but it’s still a fledgling movement in the United States. Still, some major corporations, including Wal-Mart, Nike and the carpet maker Interface, have embraced zero waste goals.

Physical waste indicates that a process contains one or more of the seven traditional forms of waste, or muda (transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, over-processing, over-production, and defects). For example, if you're throwing out a lot of spoiled food from your refrigerator, you should reconsider how you do your grocery shopping (over-production and excess inventory?), meal planning (defects and waiting?), and cooking (over-production and defects?).

However, GM and other companies are careful to clasify material sent to outside recyclers as non-waste. But being able to recycle waste is less a testament to an efficient manufacturing process than it is innovation by the recycling industry. Just because my paper waste goes into a recycling bin rather than the trash bin doesn't mean my processes have improved. Recyclable waste is still waste, and still a likely indicator of inefficiencies in the process. Still credit where credit is due.