Who Eradicated GM's Truly Landfill-Free Initiative?

In our last post, we wrote about how Ford touts its U.S. facilities to be "zero waste" despite allowing suppliers to ship on wood pallets that cause added emissions and must be trucked away. We pointed out that if Ford used its purchasing power to direct suppliers to ship to their plants on recyclable, corrugated pallets, this would result in significant fuel savings and carbon emissions reductions.

Let's be clear: directing suppliers to ship on corrugated pallets is not the stuff of fantasy. Purchasing specifications (also known as "bid specs") are commonplace in Corporate America. For inspiration, Ford need look no further than its competitor, General Motors.

In 1991, GM launched its "Landfill-Free Plant Operations" program. Stated objectives included slashing packaging waste at facilities and—yep, you guessed it—directing suppliers to replace wood pallets with corrugated pallets for inbound shipments.

GM's directive to suppliers to stop shipping on wood pallets lasted more than 15 years. Strong evidence that corrugated pallets work, and that there is a ready, global supply.

The results of GM's program: more than 60% of its global facilities were truly zero waste by the time the program ended. In fact, not only did GM's directive to suppliers work, but the company reported more than $2 billion in recycling revenue over that period. Imagine how much our libraries, hospitals, universities, and all other public facilities could benefit from recycling revenue rather than having to pay to have wood pallets removed.

Why did GM terminate Landfill-Free Plant Operations after 15 years?

So why did GM terminate Landfill-Free Plant Operations after 15 years? They never gave a public reason, but the company announced around the same time that it had reached agreement with the largest "U.S." provider of wood pallets—a company called CHEP. We put "U.S" in quotes because CHEP is an Australian company that has many of its wood pallets made outside the United States.

Perhaps there's a correlation between GM's decision to abruptly end its globally-important Landfill-Free Plant Operations program and its agreement with CHEP. We don't know for sure. But killing the only proven corrugated pallet program makes good sense if you're the largest "U.S." wood pallet manufacturer. It is worth noting that in Mexico, where CHEP has less influence, GM still requires suppliers to ship to its facility on corrugated pallets.

GM's program may have been terminated in the U.S, but its legacy lives on. As GM proved for more than 15 years, U.S. companies can direct their suppliers to ship on recyclable, corrugated pallets to advance sustainability goals and become truly zero waste. This, of course, applies to the public sector as well. Universities and colleges are large-scale buyers of supplies too. Here's hoping they start putting their Bid Specs and procurement dollars to work with respect to shipping pallets.

For more about the GM program, see the Michigan Radio (NPR) report, Pallet wars: corrugated industry tries to edge out wood pallets.

Have something to contribute? We encourage you to share your thoughts. Join the conversation by commenting below or on Twitter at @changethepallet.