Today’s plastics are mostly derived from finite resources like petroleum. However, the environmental impact of the extraction of these fossil-based resources, coupled with their diminishing availability, requires us to explore new solutions. Plant-based plastics or bioplastics provide a new, renewable way of making plastics, but they also come with a new set of impacts to our planet that must be considered.
That’s why together with eight leading consumer brands companies, WWF helped launch the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance to pursue and achieve sustainable solutions for plant-based plastics. The alliance seeks to ensure that plant-based plastics are sourced from renewable materials whose production is responsibly managed, does not result in destruction of critical ecosystems, and provides environmental benefits with minimal negative impacts.
By involving companies from across the food, beverage, automotive and apparel industries together with experts from industry, academia and civil society, this collaborative effort seeks to drive positive change and provide a competitive alternative to fossil-fuel based plastics.
We recently sat down with some of the participating companies to learn more about the value of collaborating across sectors to ensure the responsible development of plant-based plastics. The first interview in this series is with Ford’s Angela Harris, who is leading an effort to develop bio-based plastic materials for the company.
Why is Ford committed to encouraging the responsible development of plant-based plastics?
At Ford Motor Company, we have a very long history of bio-based products. Our founder, Henry Ford, was committed to using agricultural products in cars. He did a lot of work with soybeans, using soy in plastics and enamels, as well as, wheat straw for composite materials. He found value in the idea of utilizing materials that can be grown, renewable resources and using the crops that farmers produce in the vehicles that they want to buy. He had that as a vision for the company.
Using agricultural or bio-based products has always been a part of our DNA. In our company’s history, we’ve had many different efforts in these areas. In the last ten years, it’s become even more relevant for Ford to have this bio-based plastics research effort as we are continually working to develop a more sustainable vehicle both in terms of the powertrain and the materials that make up the vehicle itself.
We believe the use of bio-based materials is a solution to improve our vehicle’s environmental footprint moving forward. As we know petroleum is a limited resource; therefore petroleum-based plastics will also be a limited resource. We want to find bio-based alternatives and do it in a sustainable way that doesn’t cause any other secondary harm to the environment. We need to be responsible in how we develop these materials and how we evaluate the feedstocks that they come from, ensuring they’re grown and harvested in a responsible manner.
Why is finding scalable solutions to plant-based plastics so important?
Finding solutions at scale is really important. We don’t want to be a lone ranger, developing these materials and not sharing these materials or ideas, using them only for our specific niche applications.
We want to be able to develop these material technologies more broadly, so that every industry can have access to them. In doing so, the environmental benefits will be compounded. As a result of increased demand and usage, these bio-plastics will become more affordable andattainable when they are built at a larger scale. These new bio-based materials are competing with commodity based polymers, so we need to increase their scale and the volume for them to have a real chance in the marketplace. By showing our commitment in this field, we hope to drive people and other companies to develop and produce these materials.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced on this journey towards more renewable materials?
The real challenges are first developing the material technology that will meet the requirements for our specific automotive applications. A lot of development has gone into traditional plastics to get them to perform at the level that they are at today. When you’re talking about renewables or bioplastics, these are materials that are in their infancy. Considerable research and development is required to prove them out and scale them up to be competitive in performance with the existing polymers that we’re all using today.
We’re not going to solve that issue on our own. We’re not a plastics company, we don’t produce plastic. We have to find partners in our supply chain, as well as other companies across different industries to help further bio-plastics development, share data and help accelerate the solutions where we can.
The other challenge is how do we build up the supply chain? How does some niche technology provider that can produce a bioplastic compete with traditional commodity polymers that have been around forever and are currently really inexpensive to use? How are we going to compete with that?
If we can help build up the supply chain by finding other companies that are interested in using these materials and can create demand for them, we will help accelerate bringing more plant-based plastics into the marketplace.
How do you see the use of plant-based plastics growing in coming years?
We have a unique opportunity at Ford. We use many different types of plastic. On average we use around 300 pounds of plastic per vehicle and we have approximately 100 different types of plastic materials in each vehicle. For us, it isn’t just one type of plastic or one solution that fits all because we have a wide range of components that go into making one product.
Because we use many different types of plastics, it gives us more opportunities to make sustainable material substitutions. We can make a positive impact by transitioning to plant-based materials for many different polymers for various applications, whether its polyesters for fabrics and carpeting, or nylon materials for powertrain components. With many different types of plastics to consider and evaluate, it will keep us busy trying to find sustainable and renewable options for all of them.
What is your advice for companies just starting on their journey to transition to more renewable materials?
You have to understand the materials, how they perform and do your due diligence to ensure they are, in fact, sustainable. For a new company, I think it important to develop a network to help improve the decision making process for selecting a renewable material. For example, in my own experience, I have had companies or technology providers come to me, claiming their materials were renewable or bio-based and thus more environmentally friendly. But they hadn’t done a lifecycle assessment or had any data to support their claims. They also didn’t fully understand their supply chain and where some of their raw materials originated from or how they were harvested. And that’s why we are so excited to be part of the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, because it gives us a chance to collaborate with other companies, NGOs and academia, learning from each other. Many companies, big and small, are getting involved in the biomaterials space and we are all at different points in our journeys. The more we can work together and share insights, the bioplastics industry as a whole will benefit.
I think it’s important to find the companies that have experience in this and look for opportunities to collaborate and learn and to ask questions like where did these materials come from, how were they were collected and produced? Finding the answers to these questions will help you better understand and validate claims of sustainability.