How Car Makers Turn Plastic Bottles and Jose Cuervo Leftovers into New Vehicles

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Ford and other automakers are looking to use everything from recycled paper money to plastic bottles to reduce their carbon footprint. The production process accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions generated during a car’s lifetime, studies have shown — but most of the CO2 comes from driving the car after it’s purchased. Debbie Mielewski, a senior technical leader in materials sustainability at Ford, sees so-called trash, like once-used plastic water bottles, as resources to build new products. “There is no waste,” she said. “But we use things once in our society and think it’s trash.” Ford uses 1.2 billion recycled plastic bottles every year to make plastic parts for its cars, like the underbody skin underneath vehicles. Each car uses about 250 bottles worth of plastic. Mielewski is always looking at what’s dumped out. At her research lab in Michigan, she’s looking into repurposing out-of-circulation currency (like dollar bills) that can be ground up and made into a plastic substitute for car interiors. “So many companies have waste streams,” she noted. “If we can use those waste streams, and consume that waste,” she’s all for it. She also researching spent walnut shells and algae oil as a foam substitute. Ford already makes 300 car parts from renewable and sustainable materials, like spent soy, wheat, rice, agave from Jose Cuervo’s tequila production in Mexico, castor, tomato, hibiscus, jute (a tough plant fiber), and coconut. Mielewski said airlines replace the carpeting on planes frequently, and Ford has used 300 million pounds of recycled carpet in its cars over the past 20 years.