Refocus 2017: Ford advances its use of sustainable materials

Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader of materials sustainability, details automaker’s progress developing applications for sustainable materials.

Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader of materials sustainability, Ford Motor Co., headquartered in Dearborn, Michigan, began her keynote address at the 2017 Refocus Sustainability & Recycling Summit by listing a number of the uses the automaker has found for sustainable materials. “It looks like we’ve done a lot at Ford, but in actuality we’ve just started,” she added.

In 2000 Mielewski said she was given the responsibility of managing Ford’s plastics efforts, admitting that at the time she “hated” plastics and “wanted to do my part to make plastics better for the environment.”

This led Mielewski and her team to develop foam made from soy that is now used in the company’s seat cushions and backs and in most of its headrests in the North American market. The company’s soy foam journey started in the early 2000s. In 2003, Ford introduced the Model U concept vehicle that featured the soy foam cushions. To Mielewski’s surprise, she said, “The press didn’t beat us up too badly.”

What Mielewski said most people didn’t know is that Ford has a long history of using soy, with the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn having grown soybeans to use in paint for its cars in the 1940s.

Ford’s journey to commercialize its use of soy foam in its vehicles began in 2004 when the United Soybean Board gave the company a $230,000 grant to assist in soy foam research and analysis over a three-year period. Ford implemented its soy foam commercially in the 2008 Mustang as oil prices spiked. Mielewski said the introduction was “very well-received.”

She said 31,251 soybeans are used in typical Ford vehicle for seat cushions and backs.

According to Ford’s “2015/16 Sustainability Report,” the use of this soy foam in its new vehicles reduces the company’s annual CO2 emissions by more than 20 million pounds.

Advances such as these are “not super easy,” Mielewski said. “People need to be persistent.” This is particularly true when oil prices are low as they are now. “When oil prices are low, we need to keep moving forward because we know oil prices will go up,” she said.

She said Ford’s Chairman Bill Ford is “incredibly supportive” of the company’s work in sustainable materials.  

However, it’s not an easy task, Mielewski said, given the variety of materials used to manufacture vehicles. “I am so jealous of companies that have a bottle and a lid,” she said, adding that more than 1,000 different materials are used in a Ford vehicle.

Additionally, she said Ford cannot make compromises in terms of durability and longevity when it uses sustainable or “green” materials.

Among the other sustainable material advances Ford has worked on is the use of wheat straw-reinforced plastics, which it produced in partnership with Canadian researchers. The plastic contains 20 percent wheat straw. The first application to use the material was the 2010 Ford Flex’s third-row interior storage bins. This application reduced petroleum use by 20,000 pounds annually and CO2 emissions by 30,000 pounds annually. Mielewski described the effort as “small progress we can build on.”

The material was developed as part of the Ontario BioCar Initiative, which was an effort among Ford researchers, the University of Waterloo, the University of Guelph, the University of Toronto and the University of Windsor. The Ontario government-funded project sought to advance the use of plant-based materials in the auto and agricultural industries.

Ford also is working on a new application replacing glass fiber with cellulose fiber, Mielewski said.  

When it comes to recycled content, a number of the automaker’s underhood components use recycled postconsumer carpeting, and all of its vehicles contain at least 25 percent postindustial polyethylene terephthalate (PET) content, she said.

Regarding working with its suppliers on sustainable materials, Mielewski said the company’s supply base “doesn’t have the resources to do the work.” Instead, she said, Ford does all the upfront work, approaching suppliers when the company feels there is promise for an application, working with then to get to the final product.

When people ask Mielewski why she’s working to find uses for sustainable materials at Ford, her response is, “Why not.” Among the many reasons she mentioned for doing so were increased use of renewable and agricultural products, increased use of recycled and byproducts, reduced dependence on foreign petroleum, improve material life cycle, improved performance in select functions and increased consumer awareness.

The 2017 Refocus Summit, organized by the Plastics Industry Association, Washington, was June 27-29 in Orlando.

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