July 11, 2014

Ford’s green push accelerating

Ford Motor Co. and H.J. Heinz Co. are trying to turn tomato skins into floor mats.

Ford Motor Co. and H.J. Heinz Co. are trying to turn tomato skins into floor mats.

The car company is also working with soybean farmers, who are helping its engineers turn soy oil into seat cushions, and with the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which is helping it mold shredded U.S. currency into coin trays.

The effort is part of Ford’s biomaterials team’s push into nonpetroleum-based alternatives to traditional plastics. The goal is to reduce weight and increase fuel economy by using inexpensive, environmentally friendly materials that might otherwise become landfill.

“Our sustainable materials strategy (is) embodied by a ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ commitment,” said Ellen C. Lee, team leader of Ford’s plastics research division. She recalled a meeting with Heinz, where she was told the company used 2 million pounds of tomatoes a year to make ketchup – and there was a byproduct Ford could use.

“That got our attention,” Lee said.

Ford vehicles already feature recycled jeans and T-shirts (turned into interior padding), recycled wood (turned into interior trim), recycled yarn (microsuede for upholstery) and a kind of hibiscus plant fiber known as kenaf (door bolsters).

The company’s Flex has wheat straw in the plastic storage bins. Ford’s Focus Electric has recycled plastic water bottles in its seat covers. The Escape dashboard contains about 10 pounds of blue jeans, T-shirts and sweaters.

Now the company is looking into turning dandelion and marigold pulp into a non-petroleum-based rubber, for automotive trim and tires, and is in the early stages of a deal to recycle millions of pounds of retired U.S. currency into interior parts such as coin trays.

“I don’t know if it would be right for every customer, but it fits with the theme,” Lee said. “You could actually see that it is shredded money.”

The interest in cheap, sustainable products for automobiles is part of Ford’s heritage, company officers say. Founder Henry Ford built and unveiled a “soybean car” in 1941. It featured soy oil-based plastic panels and weighed 1,000 pounds less than a conventional Ford. The panels didn’t dent or ding.

But Ford isn’t the only company pushing into new plastics.

Honda representatives say that in 2006 the company began using a corn-based “bio-fabric” for seating material that’s now included in its Accord Plug-In and Fit EV, two low-volume green vehicles. The company also uses a byproduct of sugar cane to make a type of plastic.

According to Toyota, the company was putting PET plastic components in some Prius and Lexus vehicles as early as 2007. Toyota has also for several years been using kenaf plant fibers for scuff plates and seat cushions in some cars, and uses bamboo charcoal in the manufacturing of its speaker cones.

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