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Ford Makes Soy Cushions

June 16th, 2009 - Ford is developing sustainable materials for their non-metallic products. Already in use are soy-based seat cushions and rolling down the innovation pipelines are various bioplastics, faux-suede fabrics from soda bottles, and rubber made with soy instead of petroleum-based fillers.

According to Ford’s website, some 20-25% of a North American vehicle (by weight) is made from recycled material because of the current recycled metal content, so they are now looking at fabrics and plastics and making some interesting innovations. Currently these materials introduce new and non-renewable materials into the consumer cycle. The car manufacturer is developing sustainable alternatives. Ford considers a material sustainable based on an assessment of its origin (new, renewable or reclaimed), the resources consumed and the emissions generated throughout its lifecycle.


Soy: Ford introduced soy-based polyurethane foam seat cushions and backs in 2007 and by the end of 2009 will be using soy foam seats on more than 1 million vehicles, reducing petroleum oil usage by approximately 1 million pounds per year.

2010 Ford Escape and Mariner models will come with a soy-foam headliner.

To avoid dependency on soy, however, they are also looking at several other avenues of innovation.

Soda bottles: Recycling plastic drinks bottles into suede-like fabrics for vehicle interiors.

Post-industrial yarns: Making seat fabrics from 100% post-industrial recycled yarns.

PLASTICS - By using recycled materials, Ford expects to save money and reduce landfill waste. They estimate savings of $4 to $5 million in 2008 by using recycled materials and diverted between 25 and 30 million pounds of plastic from landfills.

As of 2008 they require “the use of recycled plastics for all underbody and aerodynamics shields, fender liners and splash shields, stone pecking cuffs and radiator air deflector shields manufactured in North America… These parts will now be made out of post-consumer recycled waste from detergent bottles, tires and automotive battery casings.”

Recycled: Ford is recycling plastic soft drinks bottles into suede-like fabrics for vehicle interiors. They are also developing various recycled resins from used detergent bottles, tires and battery casings.

Bioplastics: They are working on sugarcane-based plastics to replace fossil-fuel based ones. Other possible bioplastic sources include polylactic acid in corn, sugarbeets, sugarcane, and switchgrass.

Nanotechnology: Using nanotechnology, they can develop stronger, lighter materials. It is being used to create nano-filler materials that increase the strength of metal and plastic composites while reducing the materials’ weight. Light but strong vehicles can both improve fuel efficiency and maintain safety ratings. The recent reports of unsafe light vehicles may be overblown, says a report by Rocky Mountain Institute.

Fibres: Natural-fibre composites can replace glass fibres that are typically used to strengthen plastic auto parts.


Rubber: Made with soy protein fillers instead of petroleum-based fillers for door seals, floor mats, gaskets and splash shields.

In a multi-industry lifecycle study of an average family sedan(a spark-ignited, gasoline-powered, Taurus-class family sedan weighing 1,532 kilograms (kg)), driving the car accounts for both 86 % of the total energy used and 87% of the CO2 generated in its lifecycle. Production generates 65% of the particulates and 34% of the life-cycle sulfur dioxide.

This means that of the 60,000 kg of carbon dioxide emitted over the lifecycle of the vehicle that 51,600 kg are emitted from driving.

Read more about Ford’s progress with electric vehicles and fuel efficiency here.

However, these materials innovations reduce harmful emissions, toxic products, and create some alternatives to the ecologically damaging processes by which new and non-renewable materials are sourced. These developments may be used by other industries in the future, and the overall ecosystem impact of materials sourcing and production should not be underestimated.

Lily Laurence is a Happiness Engineer at Yerdle, and sometimes people pay her to draw while they talk. She is pursuing her MBA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School.

[Read more about Lillian Laurence]

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