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Ford and McDonald’s are building car parts together. Wait, what?

Spoiler: It’s not for the cupholder.

McDonald’s serves over a billion cups of coffee a year. That’s 2.5 million cups a day, requiring the assistance of thousands of coffee plantations worldwide to source the beans. It also, naturally, means there’s a lot of waste. Specifically, the skin of the coffee—known as the chaff—must be stripped away before grinding and brewing. Coffee roasters produce 1.2 million pounds of chaff a week in North America alone, a massive pile of organic matter that can sometimes be composted but is often simply burned.

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Most of us don’t think about the waste that every cup of coffee brings into the world. Debbie Miewelski, Ford’s senior technical leader of materials sustainability, didn’t either—until one morning when she was walking into her lab with a coffee in-hand, as per usual. “I realized there must be some waste associated with this cup!” she says. “I asked my team to dig into what could be reusable, and after some research they said the chaff of the coffee bean could be a good material for us to work with.”

Shortly thereafter, Ford began talking to McDonald’s about all that coffee by-product. The companies share common interests in this area—both are members of the of the World Wildlife Foundation’s Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, which prioritizes working plant matter into plastics. Soon, Miewelski started tinkering with chaff in the lab along with her team. And with some help from partners and suppliers in the auto industry, they realized they could heat the chaff in a low-oxygen environment, then mix it with plastic to create a strong, heat-resistant composite. That composite makes it the perfect material for a car’s headlamp—one that’s 20% lighter than what Ford was using before, which shaves about one pound off the car, improving fuel economy as a result.

[Photo: courtesy Ford]

The new composite will begin making it into Ford Mustangs and Lincoln Continentals in 2020. The arrangement is what Miewelski enthusiastically calls not just a “win-win,” but a “win-win-win-win-win-win.”

“[Chaff] would be compostable, but in this case, we’re making a high-end composite with it,” says Miewelski. “You’re making a higher-end material rather than putting it back into the ground, or worst-case, creating CO2 by burning it.” In other words, it’s an example of the circular economy, in which companies can repurpose the waste of other companies.

It’s Miewelski’s opinion that corporations need to step up, and tackle this invisible waste head-on, because concerned consumers can only do so much on their own. “We think about conserving water, turning off the tap while brushing our teeth,” says Miewelski. “But we’ll burn huge fields of agricultural waste with no benefit to mankind!”

Miewelski has been working on sustainability at Ford for 20 years now, and she readily admits that, when she started, she had no clue that building cars out of agricultural waste was in its DNA. But digging through Ford archives, she learned that Henry Ford had worked on incorporating soybeans into enamels and paints, and wheat straw into steering wheels. It seems likely his motive was thrift rather than the environment, but practically speaking, those old ideas feel new again today.

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Her first sustainability breakthrough at Ford was a soy-based foam, which could be used in seat backs and cushions. But the breakthrough was about more than material science. It was part of a new business model at Ford: The foam was shared with John Deere and a few furniture companies for use in their products, too, completely freely. “Initially . . . we talked with our legal team and [knew] we had some intellectual property, and we decided within the environmental space we should not charge licensing fees,” says Miewelski. “And that’s something that got us geeked in the lab. It really is considered a noncompetitive space for us, and I’m really proud of that fact.”

Ford has introduced a dozen sustainable material projects into its vehicles to date, including coconut fiber mats in the Focus, rice hull electrical covers in the F150, and a cellulose-based composite that recycles paper waste to replace the fiberglass that’s in conventional center consoles and cupholders. The latter is another example of how emerging materials that repurpose waste can actually benefit a car’s overall performance and production, alongside the environment: The cellulose alternative was 1.5 pounds lighter than the fiberglass Ford had been using—which had required an energy-heavy high-temperature manufacturing process that’s technically difficult for factory workers. And it’s just unpleasant work, too. “They don’t like handling fiberglass,” says Miewelski. “It makes you itchy.” Paper pulp doesn’t.

As for Ford’s work in the coffee space, Miewelski admits that one car company alone can only make a small dent in the massive pile of chaff out there. And frankly, reducing the sins of one piece of plastic in a car makes a small dent in the greater ills of new car production. But she imagines that other companies take advantage of this open IP and use the material for themselves, while corporations in general can work together to feed the circular economy.

“My hope is that many parts on vehicles, and many home goods, can utilize some of these materials. I’m convinced that it can happen,” says Miewelski. “We need to get people in the mindset, this is not waste, these are valuable products . . . the whole circular economy is something we should have been working on for the last 30 or 50 years, but now we have to catch up.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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