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Going Beyond Fuel Efficiency: General Motors' Road Towards a Greener Planet

How One Car Manufacturer is Going Beyond Fuel Efficiency

In recent years, General Motors has not had the best luck with its PR. These days, the words most commonly associated with GM fall along the lines of “bailout,” “bankruptcy” and “recall.” There are a few more words, however, with which the brand is working hard to become identified: “fuel efficiency” and “green.”

GM is doing more than one might think to benefit the environment. It joined the ranks of manufacturers producing electric vehicles with its first generation Chevy Volt: A three-time winner of the J.D. Power APEAL Award, surpassing competitors for two consecutive years on Consumer Reports’ annual automobile satisfaction survey. At the North American International Auto Show earlier this month, GM unveiled its latest vehicle in fuel efficiency with the 2016 Volt.

The real story, however, was off the show floor and in the outskirts of Detroit, at GM’s Warren, Michigan technical center, where John Bradburn, known to his peers as the “what-can-you-do-with-this-stuff-guy,” is building natural habitats for endangered species out of nonessential manufacturing equipment.

It all began during the great recession. Facing bankruptcy, GM could no longer afford the landscaping services once used to keep its campus lawns neatly manicured, and “no mow zones” were designated. Soon, several different bird species began to flock to these areas and the avian population gradually increased until eventually, says Susan Kelsey, GM’s global manager of biodiversity programs, these no-mow-zones were used deliberately for biodiversity.

“Why don’t we do more?” Kelsey recalls asking, setting into place an entire environmental program within GM that, at its core, has far less to do with fuel efficiency than it does with wildlife preservation.

Enter Bradburn, the GM global manager of waste reduction, who was tasked with repurposing Volt battery cases: Cumbersome, extremely heat-resistant containers. He had an ongoing relationship with Wetlands International, a conservation organization that had enough challenges of its own, including creating safe habitats for the scaly-sided merganser, a rare and endangered duck commonly preyed upon by the overpopulation of sables in certain regions. Bradburn, who had seen other types of mergansers in his own neighborhood, decided to try an experiment: Would the ducks take to the battery cases?

In fact, they did, nesting and building their own habitats in the boxes that, in so many other settings, may have been discarded without a thought. For the scaly-sided merganser, specifications required a way for the ducks to both run into the manmade habitats with ease, through a hole that would be too small for predators to reach into. Additionally, the ducks would need a way to quickly exit the case, through another conduit of predator-resistant measurements. The result was what would be named a wood-paneled “duck box,” with a small entrance hole and hinged exit door.

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From the Organic Authority Files

The duck boxes are just one example of what GM is doing to reduce its waste output. At the end of its useful life, even 85 to 95 percent of the Volt itself is recyclable.

Today, 40 GM sites, both manufacturing and non-manufacturing, are certified wildlife habitats, comprising at least 5,000 dedicated acres of land. That figure doesn’t include the acreage that has not yet been certified. Employees at every level of the organization have been encouraged to engage in these initiatives, in part with a photography contest. Each year, the winners’ photos are featured in GM’s wildlife calendar.

What is unclear, at this point, is GM’s future plan for more broadly broadcasting these efforts. Even the company’s own sustainability experts admitted that there is a lack of knowledge among Volt drivers, who weren’t exactly dubbed consciously green consumers. In the midst of impressively diversified communications crises within the American-made car industry, GM is presented with an invaluable opportunity to reach a new, if not traditional, potentially lucrative audience: One that is listening and waiting for the automobile industry to work beyond the showroom, and on the environment at-large.

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Image: Steve Fecht

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