Heroines

How the Farm-to-Car Movement’s Leader, Debbie Mielewski of Ford, Works: Heroines for the Planet

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Soy-based foams have made their way into every single Ford vehicle in North America. The Ford Motor Company is using other innovative and responsible plant-based materials in its vehicles too, some of which are pretty surprising.

This monumental shift to reduce the amount of petroleum used to produce plastic parts didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a charge led by Dr. Debbie Mielewski, Senior Technical Leader of Materials Sustainability at Ford and 29-year veteran of the company, who is quietly changing the auto industry.

Amazingly: She doesn’t care if anyone knows her name.

Seeing the Future, She Plans for It

It the late 1990s when SUVs ruled the road and Americans gravitated towards ‘bigger is better’, Debbie Mielewski, then technical leader of plastics research at Ford, saw into the future: She predicted a time when oil prices would soar and Ford would have to find a more sustainable, economically viable solution.

“You can grow plants in 90 days,” Mielewski told Eco-Chick. “Petroleum is made over millions of years.”

It turns out her vision was well aligned with Ford’s founder, Henry Ford. As we wrote in a 2008 article, in 1925, Ford told the New York Times that “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”

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For 5 years, Mielewski and her team worked to develop a bio-based foam using soybean oil that would meet durability and performance standards while reducing its reliance on petroleum. Mielewski says the initial foams smelled rancid and had terrible structure. Her team went through thousands of failed attempts to find the perfect formula.

In 2001, she presented years of work in a boardroom to executives. Mielewski left stunned and disappointed: Her research was rejected and she was turned around and sent back to the lab.

Timing is Everything (But So is Being Prepared)

Miewlewski kept innovating and then, not so surprisingly, in 2008, when the financial crisis hit and oil prices soared, as Mielewski had predicted, her phone began ringing off the hook. “We had good foams that were ready for prime time. I never expected the road to this moment would be easy, but I knew the payoff would be big.”

The biomaterial has helped Ford reduce its annual petroleum oil usage by more than 5 million pounds and its carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20 million pounds. The soy-foam seats can provide a 67 percent reduction in volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.

Mielewski is keen on sharing innovations and collaborating with other industries. Soy-based foam has made its way into the mattress, buildings, office, and home-furnishing industries. Mielewski says her team even worked with John Deere to develop soy foam for tractors and other agricultural equipment.

imageThese fabric scraps are used to create a genius material called shoddy. 

“Garbage” to Useful Textiles? Yes. 

Mielweski and team didn’t stop at soybeans. The lab is a playground where even the most obscure of materials isn’t off limits. The materials research department is discovering that everything from tomato skins, used cigarette filters and compost resin to agave fiber (left over from making tequila), mustard seed oil and retired money can be potentially repurposed into Ford vehicles. “The younger generation really cares about material choices,” says Mielewski. “They’re attached to nature.”

Although such materials take years of experimentation and refinement in the laboratory, Ford continues to incorporate smart, stylish and environmentally responsible materials into new vehicles.

Recycled Cotton –> Soundproofing

Recycled post-industrial cotton from 10 pairs of jeans, 26 bath towels or 31 t-shirts can now be found in vehicles such as the Ford Escape, Fusion and even their truck, the tough F-150. These scraps are used to create a mat of mixed materials called shoddy. “This mat is very good at sound absorption, and is used under carpeting, in the trunk and between the passenger compartment and the engine,” says Mielewski. “This saves millions of pounds of these fabric scraps from landfills and improves vehicle quietness.”

image The Ford Fusion features high-performing, sustainable materials and fabrics on the interior. 

In March of this year, Ford announced a fabric made out of recycled bottles would be used in its F-150 line of trucks. REPREVE is a 100 percent recycled material used in cars seats worldwide. By using this material, Ford will divert more than 5 million plastic bottles from landfills this year alone.

Over the phone, Mielewski is demonstratively excited about the promise of plants like bamboo and algae for their ability to grow and regenerate quickly. As she and her team toil in the lab, and identify the needs of Ford years down the line, one thing is abundantly clear to me. This woman loves her job. “I believe in marrying the thing you’re passionate about at home,” says Mielewski. “This doesn’t feel like work.”

 

 

Lindsay has spent her career at the intersection of media and social change. In her role at Eco-Chick, Lindsay has established partnerships and campaigns with some of the world’s most-recognized companies committed to sustainability and CSR. She co-created the popular interview series “Heroines for the Planet” that features groundbreaking women who share courage and a deep passion for protecting people and the Earth. Lindsay is the Marketing and Sustainability Manager at Health-Ade Kombucha and previously served as Director of Communications at the social enterprise CBS EcoMedia. There she directed corporate advertising dollars to the nation’s most effective non-profits tackling urgent social issues in local communities and was awarded CBS Corporation’s prestigious Share-the-Vision award. She has written for Whole Living Magazine, Edible, Cottages & Gardens, From The Grapevine, EarthHour.org, Eco-Age.com, and for environmentalists Laura Turner Seydel and Susan Rockefeller. Lindsay holds a BS in Global Business Studies and Marketing from Manhattan College, and received the 2012 Honors Award at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.