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Ford is Taking Sustainability Beyond Fuel Economy

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author photo by Whitney Homans December 2011

Creating earth-friendlier vehicles is nothing new. Most automakers have green cars of some sort, but virtually all of them address sustainability through fuel economy alone. Ford is putting an equal focus on renewable and recyclable materials and it's proving that going green can be good for the planet and the bottom line.

Ford began introducing sustainable materials - namely, soy foam - in the 2008 Mustang and has increased the use of these materials every year since. For 2012, Ford is highlighting its use of renewable materials in the Focus and Escape with soy foam, post-consumer cotton and post-consumer plastics. The Focus contains seat cushions that are made from soy foam and interior cloth materials that are made from 25 percent recycled content. The new Focus also has post-consumer cotton from recycled clothing in its carpet backing and sound-absorption materials.

The 2013 Escape, which Ford recently debuted at the 2011 LA Auto Show, uses 25 recycled bottles to create the carpets for its entire cabin. Additionally, about 85 percent of materials used in Ford's vehicles are recyclable, and 95 percent of retired vehicles are processed for recycling. In 2012, soy foam will be available in the seats and seat backs of most vehicles and 75 percent of head rests. The company is also using recycled resins for underbody systems, recycled yarns on seat covers and natural-fiber plastic in its vehicles.

Implementing these renewable materials can take a while - soy foam took six years to go from an idea in the Ford lab to reality in a Ford vehicle - but using more of these materials allows Ford to support the environment while also supporting its own wallet.

Recognizing that oil is an increasingly expensive nonrenewable resource, Ford continues to look for ways to lessen its dependency on the commodity, said Angela Harris, a Plastics Research Engineer at Ford. Reducing oil consumption doesn't just mean fuel, though. Petroleum is also needed to create traditional automotive materials, particularly plastics. By using renewable materials to create these same or similar materials, Ford reduces its reliance and carbon footprint.

"As the price of oil increases, soy and corn oil, which are renewable, become cheaper and more attractive options," Harris said.

Additionally, engineers like Harris are also working on using sugars to make traditional plastic polymers. If successful, these plastics would be 100 percent derived from crops and 100 percent compostable.

Ford's respect for the bottom line means that all sustainable materials used in a vehicle must be at least the same price as traditional materials. "In the choice between traditional and sustainable materials, Ford gives the advantage to sustainable ones," said Harris. "But only when the price is the same."

"Our goal is to keep making progress and keep increasing our use of recyclable and renewable materials and to make the transition from traditional to sustainable as seamless as possible, but it has to be cost effective," Harris said.

As a result of implementing these earth-friendly materials, Ford has reduced its petroleum use by 3-4 million pounds per year and its carbon dioxide output by 15 million pounds per year. Harris said the company is anxious to continue its work reducing traditional costs and increasing the use of sustainable materials. "We're always looking to reduce our use of petroleum, and we want to continue to include more sustainable content in each generation and migrate sustainable products to different places," she said.

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Ford is Taking Sustainability Beyond Fuel Economy - Autotrader