Wednesday, June 19

How car makers turn plastic bottles and Jose Cuervo leftovers into new vehicles

One person’s trash is another’s treasure — literally when it comes to making cars.

Ford and other automakers are looking to use everything from recycled paper money to plastic bottles to reduce their carbon footprint. And yes, it smacks of “greenwashing” — after all, it takes a lot of natural resources to build a new car — but they are helping make auto manufacturing less wasteful than before.

The production process accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions generated during a car’s lifetime, studies have shown — but most of the CO2 comes from driving the car after it’s purchased.

Debbie Mielewski, a senior technical leader in materials sustainability at Ford, sees so-called trash, like once-used plastic water bottles, as resources to build new products.

“There is no waste,” she said. “But we use things once in our society and think it’s trash.”

Ford uses 1.2 billion recycled plastic bottles every year to make plastic parts for its cars, like the underbody skin underneath vehicles. Each car uses about 250 bottles worth of plastic.Mielewski is always looking at what’s dumped out. At her research lab in Michigan, she’s looking into repurposing out-of-circulation currency (like dollar bills) that can be ground up and made into a plastic substitute for car interiors.

“So many companies have waste streams,” she noted. “If we can use those waste streams, and consume that waste,” she’s all for it. She also researching spent walnut shells and algae oil as a foam substitute.

Ford already makes 300 car parts from renewable and sustainable materials, like spent soy, wheat, rice, agave from Jose Cuervo’s tequila production in Mexico, castor, tomato, hibiscus, jute (a tough plant fiber), and coconut. Mielewski said airlines replace the carpeting on planes frequently, and Ford has used 300 million pounds of recycled carpet in its cars over the past 20 years.Mielewski offered a three-pronged approach to reducing waste in the car industry. First, use less energy to produce the cars, then build cars with better, more efficient fuel economies, then drastically reduce what comes out the back of a car once on the road — ideally through more hybrid and all-electric vehicles.

The car company released its latest sustainability report Thursday outlining its goal to use 100 percent renewable energy for its manufacturing plants around the world by 2035.

Ford claimed 228 million pounds of CO2 reduced since switching to soybean-based foam for all its car seats in 2011.

Other car companies and parts makers have been finding new uses for old materials, especially in electric vehicles. The Nissan Leaf is composed of 25 percent recycled materials, according to EV data company FleetCarma, including plastic bottles for seats, recycled fabric for pads, and reused electrical components.

Toyota’s Prius and Kia’s Soul EV have seat cushions and other parts made partly from bioplastics. Recycled plastic is also found in the Jeep Grand Cherokee seat cushions. BMW’s i3 uses olive leaves to tan its leather seats and eucalyptus is made into panels on the doors and dash.

Volvo pledged last year to make 25 percent of its plastic in new cars out of recycled materials starting in 2025. That means old fish nets could be made into consoles and plastic bottles into carpeting. Tesla said it recycled 2,900 tons of plastics in 2017 and currently its seats are all made from vegan leather.

Lyft doesn’t manufacture cars. But it did announce a carbon-offsetting program last year, supporting companies like Meridian Magnesium Products, which switched from sulfur hexafluoride, or SF6, to the more expensive, but greener, NOVEC-612 to make car parts. It says the move led to a reduction of 300,000 metric tons of CO2 per year.