By Kate Shifman
Substitute foods made with soy are fairly common, but how about a soy driver’s seat?
Yes, that’s right, if you buy a Ford vehicle, all foam in the seats is made of soy. This sustainable practice yields a reduction over 13,300 barrels of oil and CO2 emissions of more than 15 million pounds.
Soy foam seats can also help boost our domestic economy – soy farmers in the Midwest, for example, are very happy to sell their excess crop to Ford.
Even blue jeans can’t escape the Ford scientists – the fibers from two pairs of recycled jeans per vehicle are used as part of carpet backing on the new 2012 Focus.
Ford Researcher Deb Mielewski spends her days identifying sustainable solutions like these. Following is text of an interview with Mielewski:
SCGH: What are the benefits to consumers in having plant-based recycled materials as a part of their cars? Are there any health, price, or other benefits, in addition to the environmental ones?
MIELEWSKI: We believe that there are many reasons to pursue the development of these new materials, in addition to the positive environmental impact. For example, when we were formulating soy based foam with Lear Corporation, we not also made it low-VOC (volatile organic compounds). Another example is replacing glass fibers with natural fibers such as cellulose (from trees). Glass fibers are expensive, they take an enormous amount of energy to produce and can cause respiratory illness in people who handle them during manufacturing.
We believe in the longer term that the use of grown (sustainable) materials will be lower in cost than petroleum based ones. So in a sense, we are investing in our (Ford’s) future, and at the same time, the future of the planet, by researching, developing and utilizing the materials now.
What parts of the interiors and on which models are currently being produced using plant based materials? Which parts of the vehicles are produced with recycled materials?
We launched soy based seat cushions and backs on the Ford Mustang in 2007. And we worked to migrate the technology so that currently just about every vehicle built here in North America has bio-foam today. But it doesn’t have to stop there. We also have 75% of our North American vehicles with bio-based headrests, the Escape has a bio-based headliner (the fabric above your head). We are still working to increase the level of bio-oil in the formulations, and to expand the applications to components such as armrests, instrument panels and steering wheels. There is a lot of bio-foam on cars.
We also launched a wheat straw filled plastic on the Ford Flex late in 2010. It’s the third row bins. The intent is to migrate this material to other components, and we are testing a number of them right now. The wheat straw we are using is a waste product. Once wheat is harvested and the grain removed, a small portion is returned to the soil as fertilizer. Beyond that, there are a few uses for the straw such as animal bedding. But a large portion of wheat straw is burned, which is bad environmentally. So, we found it’s a good reinforcing material for poly(propylene) ( a common automotive interior material) and meets our requirements for certain components. This one small application (bin) reduces our use of petroleum by over 20,000 lbs and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by over 30,000 lbs every year.
As far as recycled materials go, Ford is already using a lot and has been increasing use over the past five years. My group is also looking at some brand new technologies, such as recycling urethane foam back into new car seating. Here the focus is either using the material post-consumer back into the same application, or even upcycling, like using detergent and milk bottles for automotive ductwork.
Currently, many of our seating fabrics utilize both post-industrial and post-consumer recycled resins to produce yarns. Ford is also using EcoLon® material, a nylon resin made from 100 percent recycled carpet, in some of our cylinder head covers for the Ford Escape, Fusion, Mustang and F150. This has resulted in saving more than 4.1 million pounds of carpet from landfills and a reduction of more than 430,000 gallons of oil consumed. We also use recycled cottons from blue jeans in the interior of the new 2012 Focus as part of carpet backing and sound absorption materials. Each vehicle contains roughly two pairs of jeans.
In addition to the benefit of using less plastics and, therefore, emmitting less CO2 to produce a certain part, how carbon intensive is the production process of both, plant-based and recycled parts?
For many of the new bio-materials, the complete life cycle analyses are still in development. That’s why we are determined to learn everything we can about them in the lab, and be able to apply that learning to other crops. For instance, currently soy is grown in excess in the midwest, and farmers are looking for alternative uses for soy oil and meal. But all of the learning we did on soy could be used to utilize palm or castor oil, if that’s the oil of choice in other parts of the world.
Even though we don’t know the entire lifecycle of materials we are looking at, we do know that as a plant grows, it sequesters (takes up) carbon dioxide, and this contributes greatly to the positive impact of these materials when compared to petroleum. For soy polyols (used in foams), every pound of soy oil used reduces carbon dioxide by 5.5 pounds. In that case, the lifecycle has been documented, and is very positive environmentally. For our all of our soy foam applications in production, we reduce our petroleum usage by over four million pounds per year and our CO2 emissions by over 15 million pounds per year.
What is your favorite thing about working in the sustainability arena?
When most people think of “green” and automotive, they immediately think of powertrain. But the materials used in cars can also be made greener, and when talking about producing millions of vehicles per year, the environmental benefits really start to add up.
I am excited and proud to be a part of the shift away from limited, petroleum based plastics to use things we can grow that are better for the planet. We are working with many non-competitive companies to share what we’ve learned and get the materials used as many places, as quickly as possible.”
Kate Shifman is a New Yorker, sustainability professional, photographer, and publisher of Solar In The City, a solar and energy efficiency guide for the city dweller
Confused by the Green Terms? Read our Glossary of Green Terms!