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Demand For Bioplastics Creates Strange Industry Bedfellows

Words by Leon Kaye

We may never see a completely biodegradable or compostable car in our lifetime, and in fairness, most cars at the end of their lifecycle boast a recycling rate of anywhere from 75 to 90 percent. Nissan and Toyota, for example, have improved the recycling rate of their end-of-life, or ELV, vehicles. Automobiles, in fact, are the most recycled consumer product -- which is why junkyards can be a lucrative business.

There is always room for improvement, however, as components in automobiles, from foam to dashboards to upholstery, could be designed for easier recyclability. And while plastic helps lower the total weight of cars and therefore improves overall fuel efficiency, rising petroleum prices add to the spiking costs of automobile manufacturing. Add the fact that more consumers want to see companies in all sectors show that they are more environmentally responsible, and you have the trend of parts from curious sources ending up inside cars over the coming years.

Ford Motor is one automaker that has experimented with alternative materials in its cars recently. Now this program will go one step further. This morning, the Dearborn-based company will announce that it will partner with the pulp and paper giant Weyerhaeuser to develop composites and parts out of tree-derived cellulose.

According to a Ford Motor press release, Weyerhaeuser’s cellulose-based bioplastic meets the auto giant's need for materials that can withstand heat, are durable, and boast enough strength stand up to the demands of cars and trucks. In 2009, the two companies began a collaboration which resulted in the finding that components made out of cellulose had the possibility to weigh 10 percent less than conventional fiberglass-based materials. Furthermore, the composites could be produced using less energy and at a pace 20 to 40 percent faster than materials derived from petroleum.

The companies together designed prototype armrests that could end up in Ford’s future automobiles. But tree-based cellulose is strong and durable enough for cars’ exteriors and even under-the-hood parts.

For Weyerhaeuser, based south of Seattle in Federal Way, WA, such a partnership could provide the company a new revenue stream from the waste generated in the company’s 20 million acres of managed forests. If Ford’s goal to find new materials that match environmental stewardship with improved performance succeeds, the result could help transform Weyerhaeuser’s business model after several years of shaky financial performance. Watch for other partnerships like this odd Detroit-Seattle alliance to replicate in the coming years as more companies dealing with pesky supply chain issues confront rising energy and commodity prices that for now are set to only go in one direction: up.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy Ford Motor.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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