Trash to Treasure: A New Sharing Economy Launches in Detroit

Trash to Treasure: A New Sharing Economy Launches in Detroit

Think twice before you throw that away. Someone else might have a use for it.
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.@GM FastLane: A new sharing economy has sprung up in Detroit. #reuse #recycle #trashtotreasure

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Friday, October 10, 2014 - 4:00pm

CAMPAIGN: GM Waste Reduction


Many progressive businesses are operating with the mindset that waste is merely a resource out of place. And they often play a lot of connect-the-dots to give a byproduct a second useful life.

Many possibilities emerge when thinking creatively. For example, GM takes cardboard from its plants and recycles it into the headliner for the Buick Verano and Lacrosse to give them that library quietness for which the cars are known.

But what if a company had more than just its own resources to channel this creativity? What if you could open up the possibilities with resources from other organizations willing to trade?

That’s the premise behind the Reuse Opportunity Collaboratory Detroit. The initiative brings together Michigan institutions, businesses, and entrepreneurs to develop zero-waste partnerships in which one organization’s waste becomes another’s raw material.

Pure Michigan Business Connect partnered with GM, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, CXCatalysts, and the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development to transform the concept into a reality.

Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s CEO Michael A. Finney referred to ROC Detroit as a groundbreaking effort to support sustainable manufacturing while growing Michigan’s economy and creating jobs.

“The ROC Detroit summit will help Michigan’s small and growing companies connect with General Motors and other partner companies’ waste management officials to find ways to reuse waste byproduct materials to their fullest potential,” he said.

The program kicked off at the GM Renaissance Center on Sept. 30, drawing 80 people to learn about the initiative and brainstorm potential reuse applications and synergies.

Andy Mangan, executive director of the U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development, welcomed everyone.

“This is the start of an ongoing collaboration among a range of interests in the Detroit area – and Michigan eventually – to take a new pathway to underutilized resources,” he said. “We have a lot of expertise in the room. There are many who are incredibly creative and can come in with a new view.”

U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development is a consortium of 60 companies around the country with several member companies in Michigan, such as GM and Fairmount Santrol.

“Sustainability is on the rise with innovative leaders, and we have a roomful here,” echoed Chuck Fowler from Fairmount Santrol & The Fowler Institute for Sustainable Value.

Fowler gave a presentation on why material reuse makes business sense. Hint: it’s not just pure financials.

“Our people really get involved with it, and they take it to their communities to start up programs. We’ve become the company of choice for our employees and people want to come and work for us.”

Sustainability can drive talent retention; an especially important element as more people want to work for companies that share their values and do their part to address social and environmental challenges.

The event included a discovery session where participants discussed their top resource challenges, from chemicals to plastics and construction demolition materials. Then they shared ideas for collaboration.

“I’m looking forward to taking our next steps together along our path to sustainability; using our vision to actually see and imagining a world not as it is, but what it can become,” said John Bradburn, GM global manager of waste reduction and one of the catalysts for the initiative.

This kind of collaborative effort is a significant undertaking, but the City of Austin has proven that it can be done.

Bob Gedert, director of Austin Resource Recovery and a self-described “pragmatic environmentalist”, flew in from Texas to share his experiences on Austin’s free web-based materials exchange network.

“I try to work in collaboration with my local businesses and it yields more of an innovative pathway to resource recovery,” he said. “We’re transforming the concept of managing waste to managing resources…we’re changing our vocabulary and our actions.”

But how does this translate to Detroit? According to Gedert, reuse spurs economic development.

“I see the rebirth of Detroit taking advantage of a new circular economy,” Gedart said. “In a linear economy, materials are produced and end up in a landfill. That’s a drain on the economy. When you create a secondary use and give life to it a third and even fourth time, you’re creating more value out of that material stream, and it adds to the economy. I believe in the highest and best use at a lower cost than landfilling.”

Pashon Murray, founder and CEO of composting start-up Detroit Dirt, spoke about innovating for job and wealth creation. Seeing the growth of the urban farming movement in Detroit, she began pushing the idea of closed loop systems.

“Detroit Dirt went from a vision to building relationships within the city and bringing companies together that normally wouldn’t work together,” said Murray.

Those relationships not only led to nutrient-rich compost that helps reduce a company’s environmental impact, but led to bottom-line discoveries.

“We’ve also been able to create data,” she said. “One of the corporations we work with saw its waste bill decrease a bit and create an efficiency in their kitchen. It gave them a better idea of what they should be ordering.”

The room was full of entrepreneurs like Murray, as well as automakers, suppliers and NGOs. Even representatives from Detroit’s maker and artist community attended.

Bethany Shorb networked with industrial companies and resource management partners to find parts and scrap for art. She’s part of an organization called OmniCorp Detroit that pools tools and resources in one collective space.

She put it simply: “There’s so many people out there that want your stuff.”

By the end of the day, wheels were turning and connections were made. Jim Oberlee, a senior environmental engineer at GM who handles resource management for GM’s non-manufacturing facilities like warehouses and office buildings, was happy to be part of the movement.

“This session has been extremely valuable; just getting all the players in one room,” he said. “In just a short period of time, I made a lot of connections from the pallet industry to reusable packaging.”

Brian Watkins of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation closed the event by stating, “This seems like the end of the day, but really, it’s just the beginning.”