Unless a company or organization is 100 percent efficient, it will generate waste. The key is to treat that waste as a resource that’s just out of place.

General Motors (GM) manages its byproducts in one electronic tracking system with a goal of recovering all resources to their highest value. All materials are regarded as useful and marketable.

This mindset has produced several reuse opportunities for GM; a philosophy that’s helped the company achieve an industry-leading 131 landfill-free facilities around the world. For example, used tires from the company’s proving grounds are recycled to make air and water deflectors for the Chevrolet Volt; plastic packaging from plants is mixed with other materials to make radiator shrouds for the Chevrolet Silverado; and cardboard from its assembly plant near Detroit is turned into the headliner of the Buick Verano.

To give life to more of these types of projects, GM helped launch a reuse network called the Reuse Opportunity Collaboratory (ROC) Detroit in 2014. The organization brings together Michigan institutions, businesses and entrepreneurs to develop zero-waste partnerships in which one organization’s waste becomes another’s raw material. GM, Pure Michigan Business Connect, the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., CXCatalysts and the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development worked together to transform the concept into a reality.

The first event included a discovery session where participants discussed their top resource challenges, from chemicals to plastics and construction demolition materials. Then, they brainstormed how those materials could be repurposed and who could benefit, from startups to artists to other big companies.

The collaboration strengthens GM’s supply web and provides more options for creative reuse, while also boosting the economy as a whole. Entrepreneurs make more contacts so they can build their operations, businesses create partnerships with new companies, and socially minded organizations get introduced to new sources of material.

The environmental benefit is clear—keeping materials in use and out of the ground. Energy costs decrease, as well, as reuse is even better than recycling. ROC Detroit continues to build its network by recruiting suppliers and users, collecting and analyzing data for synergies, and meeting to share, network and generate opportunities.

“The people a company meets could end up being a key player in transforming a waste stream into something with greater economic or societal value.” – John Bradburn

Taking this concept to another level is the U.S. Materials Marketplace. The organization also helps companies of all sizes find second uses for byproducts. Through this system, companies can view and purchase used materials through an online database.

Companies and other organizations purchase them at a price lower than they would elsewhere, and less waste is put into landfills as a result.

GM’s latest closed-loop recycling example is called “Do Your Part.” More than half a million water bottles from five GM facilities are getting a second life as three fleece-like materials that benefit products, plants and people. Engaged employees ensure they put their bottles in the right bin.

The company took time to communicate what this plastic will become, reinforcing how each person plays a role in making that transformation happen. GM broke it down to how many bottles it takes to create the products.

  • Seven bottles help make a fabric insulation that covers the Chevrolet Equinox V6 engine to dampen noise.
  • Six bottles help make an air filtration component used in 10 GM facilities to protect air quality.
  • Thirty-one bottles help make the insulation for the Empowerment Plan coat that transforms into a sleeping bag for the homeless. GM is donating enough material to make 6,500 coats.

It’s important to note that these water bottles would have been recycled—likely overseas where most plastics head after they get tossed in a recycling bin. But GM sought out a way to design a process where it could keep the material local, channeling it back into its plants, products and the community.

Another circular initiative is found at GM’s world headquarters, the Renaissance Center. As a way to further improve upon its landfill-free status, the building’s 22 restaurants collect their food prep scraps. GM sends these scraps to a local company that turns them into compost for Detroit urban farms, including a rooftop garden at the RenCen where 48 shipping crates from GM’s manufacturing operations are reused as raised beds. Four scrap Chevrolet Volt battery covers converted into butterfly habitats help to support pollination. One of the building restaurants uses the garden’s vegetables—187 pounds grown last year—to create farm-to-table dishes. In turn, the owner makes a donation equal to the food’s value to a warming center across the street providing hospitality services to impoverished and homeless citizens.

That’s why it’s important to make these connections. The people a company meets could end up being a key player in transforming a waste stream into something with greater economic or societal value. The challenge is in finding those organizations with the right capabilities and mindset, and introducing them to other partners who they could do business with to further the mission.

Even after a project is completed, it’s beneficial to carve out time to communicate the success and share best practices. The goal is to create awareness of the possibilities, helping people see items not as what they are, but what they can be. That’s how these projects become mainstream.

Whatever paths are taken, this growing movement will help ensure these resources don’t go to waste.

John Bradburn, is global manager of waste reduction for Detroit-based General Motors.