Bye-Bye Brownfield: General Motors Gives Students Hands-on Sustainability Experience

An innovative program transforms a brownfield into a wildlife habitat, giving students real-world experience as environmental stewards

(3BL Media/Justmeans) -- Students in upstate New York have planted hundreds of shrub and plant seedlings in an effort to transform a brownfield into a thriving wildlife habitat. The program is a result of a partnership between General Motors, non-profit environmental organizations and local schools in the Buffalo region. It's part of an innovative project that aims to not only reclaim land that has been damaged by industrial activity, but also to give students hands-on experience learning how to become good stewards of the environment.

"This day enables us to enhance students' understanding of conservation and show how they can reduce their environmental impact," said Miguel Antonetti, environmental supervisor at GM's manufacturing plant in Tonawanda, a suburb north of Buffalo where the company builds the engines that power the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu, 2013 Cadillac ATS and future 2014 Cadillac CTS. "In addition to the planting activity, students will learn about our landfill-free manufacturing processes and how we recycle and reuse all of our daily waste."

The planting initiative was part of GM's "Learn It, Live It" Day in June, which gave students a chance to meet environmental professionals and be a part of GM's sustainability goals. The site will support a host of pollinators and other wildlife—a far cry from its former status as a brownfield (which the EPA defines as "real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant").

For the students, the day marked the culmination of months of learning about water quality through an educational outreach initiative by the non-profit organization GREEN (Global River Environmental Education Network), a program in which GM partners with the nonprofit Earth Force, environmental education non-profit Buffalo Urban Outdoor Education (BUOE) and area schools to help students learn how human activity impacts local watersheds.


To complement the newly built wildlife habitat in Tonawanda, GM will build bat houses made from scrap battery covers from the Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle. The battery cover was designed "to keep the hard-to-recycle material out of landfills while also benefiting wildlife."

"Turning battery covers into nests is just one example of the type of sustainability project we seek out," said Mike Robinson, Vice President of Sustainability and Global Regulatory Affairs at GM, in a guest blog post for the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC). "These nesting boxes not only help us reduce environmental impact, they enhance our habitats and engage our communities, as well."

To date, the company has installed 250 "battery cover bat houses" throughout Michigan, Ohio and New York. (Scientists estimate that the little brown bat is at risk for extinction in the northeastern U.S. within 20 years due to white nose syndrome.)

Last year, 41 GM sites participated in GREEN nationwide. The company manages over 2,500 acres of wildlife habitat across 25 sites, and has committed to developing wildlife habitats at each of its global manufacturing sites, where feasible, by 2020.


According to their website, the WHC is "a nonprofit, non-lobbying 501(c)(3)…dedicated to restoring and enhancing wildlife habitat." Their members include "conservation organizations, local and state agencies, academic institutions and corporations, including 40 in the Fortune 500." General Motors, Abbott, Bristol-Myers Squib, DuPont, Eli Lilly, Exxon Mobil and Monsanto are some of their Fortune 500 members.

The WHC has entered into a cooperative agreement with the EPA to "research, test, develop and demonstrate the ways and means that state, local governments, industry and community groups can use ecological enhancements to increase the rate at which contaminated lands, both private and public (state, tribal, and local), can be restored for a variety of reuses including wildlife habitat enhancement as part of restoration designs."

They have their work cut out for them: The EPA estimates that more than 450,000 brownfields exist across the United States. But it is a worthwhile project. "Cleaning up and reinvesting in these properties," the agency says, "increases local tax bases, facilitates job growth, utilizes existing infrastructure, takes development pressures off of undeveloped, open land, and both improves and protects the environment."


Since 1999, when GREEN and GM partnered with Earth Force, more than 100,000 students in over 32 GM communities across the United States and Canada have been mentored by GM employees to see firsthand how the scientific lessons they learn in the classroom are applied in the real world by visiting local rivers, streams and lakes to conduct water quality testing field experiments, including recording and assessing physical attributes and studying water samples for aquatic insects.

"Allowing our students to make discoveries about their environment through hands-on learning makes a powerful impact," said BUOE executive director Captain Kate Hilliman, who founded the organization in 2008 to connect youth to the Great Lakes by giving them experience-based shipboard education. "Not only are students gaining science knowledge, they are interacting with professionals in the field and making connections to the practical application of what they are learning in the classroom."

"We oftentimes work alongside students, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and other community-based youth organizations to help us put the finishing touches on these projects," said Robinson. "It gives GM environmental engineers a reason to spread the word about recycling and helps instill a deeper understanding and appreciation for nature among our next generation of leaders."

From classrooms to boardrooms, the desire to protect the environment is cross-pollinating. And thanks to the transformation of a brownfield into a wildlife habitat, some bees in Tonawanda are doing the same.

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