Novi, Mich. —
Sustainability is a hot-button issue for a lot of automakers and suppliers today, but for Ford Motor Co.'s Debbie Mielewski, it's a topic that is deep-rooted in her livelihood and entrenched in her everyday habits.
As the senior technical leader of materials sustainability for the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker, Mielewski continues to pioneer the development of sustainable plastics and composites for automotive applications, boosting Ford's use of soy-based polyurethane foam and other unconventional filler materials such as coffee chaff and rice hulls.
But it was during the Society of Plastics Engineers' 18th annual Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition that she expressed to attendees just how deeply affected she is by sustainability goals, or the lack thereof, set not only by the automotive industry but also by government leaders around the world.
"Our group had a giant party the day the Paris climate agreement was signed, and I felt like that was a giant step forward," Mielewski said during a Sept. 7 panel discussion. "When [the United States] pulled out of the Paris agreement, I could barely get out of bed to go to work."
For Mielewski, as an employee of a global automaker and a human being trying to survive another day on planet Earth, it was a reminder for her that corporations — both on their own and together as part of an influential industry — need to focus on sustainability efforts without necessarily relying on government regulation for a nudge in the right direction.
"Some days, it's hard to get out of bed and look 'that green thing' in the face because people are so distracted with other things, but let me tell you, investing 20 years in this, it is going to be a big part of our future," she said. "Big corporations have to take some responsibility."
Mielewski, who has grown tired of the "if it's cheaper and it's environmental, we'll do it" triple-bottom-line response, asked bluntly, "What's your corporate commitment to sustainability?"
Walking the walkJay Olson, global manager of materials engineering and technology at agricultural, construction and forestry equipment maker Deere & Co., said this year the company has committed to pursuing product sustainability metrics.
In 2007, the company partnered with Ford on putting the soy-based polyurethane foams to use in the seatbacks, seat cushions, armrests and headrests of John Deere equipment.
"Our customers are linked to the land, linked to the soil," Olson said. "They're stewards of the land, and so our company has naturally been sustainable in that way for many years."
At General Motors Co., Lauren Smith, a panelist for the discussion and the automaker's project manager of global sustainability initiatives, said waste is viewed as "simply a resource out of place."
"We're conscious of our impact that we have on the environment and we also recognize that our output streams have potential for reuse," she said. "This is why we're looking at an aggressive goal to be a leading auto manufacturer in reducing our waste and having zero waste come from our sites and not going into landfills."
It's part of GM's commitment to a "zero, zero, zero vision" of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion, Smith explained.
"We're looking to reduce crashes through autonomous vehicles, address climate change through electrification and also alleviate congestion through connectivity," she said.
In addition, the Detroit automaker is taking plastic water bottles from several of its facilities to manufacture engine manifold covers and air filters, for example, as a way to adopt a more closed-loop process.
Closing the loop refers to waste and byproducts that are being transformed into resources that can either be reused in the same process or modified to contribute to different processes, said Mark Minnichelli, director of technical development for BASF Corp.'s performance materials business.
For years, the German chemical giant has applied what it calls "the Verbund model" at six of its larger plant sites — two of which are in the United States: one in Geismar, La., and the other in Freeport, Texas.
The system, in part, involves taking byproducts from one facility and using them as raw materials at another facility, resulting in lower energy costs, less waste and fewer natural resources being consumed, Minnichelli explained.
Material mattersBut going green still has to make good business sense, according to Michael Saltzberg, DuPont's global business director of biomaterials.
New materials, he said, must fulfill these three requirements if they are going to work in the marketplace: They have to have better technical performance, be economical when brought to scale, and have a strong environmental story that includes renewable sourcing.
"We've got to come up with solutions that aren't what I call 'solutions for rich people.' We're trying to come up with … a material that is at a price point that it can be broadly applicable," he said. "That's kind of our job as a materials supplier [since] we work in the beginning of these value chains: Try to bring options to all the other folks — the converters, the Tier 1 suppliers, the OEMs."
Recycling, especially in automotive, is another challenge, with automakers like GM increasing the number of plastic components used in their vehicles for lightweighting and other benefits.
"This is a great opportunity for us to increase the recycled content in our vehicles, too," Smith said.
At Ford, the automaker said it recycles 5 million pounds of aluminum scrap each week — enough to make more than 37,000 new F-Series truck bodies a month. In addition, its vehicles contain a minimum of 25 percent post-industrial PET content as well as recycled post-consumer carpeting.
Don Wingard, director of research and technology at thermoplastic resins supplier and compounder Wellman Advanced Materials LLC, said carpet recycling is growing, but the rate is still low.
"Most of the carpet goes to a landfill. We only get a small percentage of carpet to recycle back into compounded resins that go into the automotive industry," he said. "We need to increase that rate, the rate of recycling, and put that carpet to better use in the automotive industry."
Deere's Olson said when it comes to increasing recycling and the availability of reusable materials, it has to be a "total systems approach" involving government, academia, OEMs and the value and supply chains to come up with solutions and create defined pathways to sustainability.
"We all have to work together. We have to be aligned," he said. "It will require all of our resources to sustain this journey toward sustainability, which will be by one component and material at a time."
Ford's Mielewski, too, knows that getting to a circular economy in automotive requires a little-by-little, step-by-step approach.
"Let's do the next thing that makes the most sense, that makes an impact, and just keep building," she said. "So, I'm with Jay [Olson]. Little, tiny baby steps moving in the right direction."
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