Ford is trying to do its part to combat climate change by recycling old coffee waste from McDonald’s into car parts. The automaker will be taking food waste from the fast-food giant, diverting it from a landfill to its laboratory, where it will be engineered into bioplastics, Ford said. In addition to reducing food waste, the effort will make car parts lighter, use less petroleum, and lower CO2 emissions.
The auto industry is under enormous pressure to reduce tailpipe emissions and increase the production of electric vehicles. Over a quarter of all carbon emissions are from the transportation sector. Ford is one of four global automakers that have bucked the Trump administration by reaching a deal with California to increase the fuel economy of — and reduce emissions from — their new vehicle fleets through 2026. Turning the dried skin of the coffee bean, that falls of during roasting, into auto parts is a relatively minor effort compared to that, but Ford hopes that it will bolster its environmental bona fides all the same.
TURNING COFFEE CHAFF INTO AUTO PARTS IS A RELATIVELY MINOR EFFORT COMPARED TO REDUCING TAILPIPE EMISSIONS
Here’s how Ford describes the process:
Every year, millions of pounds of coffee chaff – the dried skin of the bean that naturally comes off during the roasting process – are turned into garden mulch or charcoal in North America. Together, Ford and McDonald’s can provide an innovative new home to a significant portion of that material. The companies found that chaff can be converted into a durable material to reinforce certain vehicle parts. By heating the chaff to high temperatures under low oxygen, mixing it with plastic and other additives and turning it into pellets, the material can be formed into various shapes.
The chaff composite meets the quality specifications for parts like headlamp housings and other interior and underhood components. The resulting components will be about 20 percent lighter and require up to 25 percent less energy during the molding process. Heat properties of the chaff component are significantly better than the currently used material, according to Ford.
Ford has set a goal for itself to only use recycled and renewable plastics in its global vehicle fleet.
The process that’s being pioneered by McDonald’s and Ford for use in car parts including headlight housings and interior plastics takes this coffee chaff, heats it up in a low-oxygen environment so it’s less likely to burn and mixes it in with plastics to form pellets. These pellets (and the parts made from melting and molding them) have the benefits of being both lighter weight and significantly less energy-intensive to produce than traditional plastics.
“We started with an application such as the headlamp housings because this property tested extremely well in high heat – in fact, better than traditional materials. Because headlamps put off a lot of heat, this application was a good fit,” said Debbie Mielewski, Ford senior technical leader, sustainability and emerging materials research team, in a statement. “Additionally, headlamp housings are a large car part, and since there are a 20% weight savings with using coffee chaff, we wanted to maximize the size of the part for added fuel economy benefit.”
We were curious what else Ford had in mind for this new coffee chaff plastic, so we asked.
“The headlamps are just a start. We’re already testing the properties in several other underhood and storage applications, with the goal of quickly expanding to a wide variety of additional Ford and Lincoln parts in the coming years,” Mielewski continued. “We used this approach with soy-based foam, which was first introduced in seats in 2007 on the Mustang, and now is in seats, headliners, and gaskets in every Ford vehicle built in North America.”
Now we’re excited to see Ford find more uses for this new hybrid plastic in its vehicles, and eventually maybe move away from petroleum-based plastics in general. Until then, we also hope it chooses to license the technology and that its use becomes more widespread.