Ford requires vast amounts of plastics to make its cars lighter and more fuel-efficient. Weyerhaeuser generates plenty of waste at its sawmills. The race is on to find alternatives to petroleum-based plastic that will benefit both the environment and the companies’ bottom line.
Weyerhaeuser currently collects residual waste and chips at its sawmills and uses it to meet 70 percent of the company’s energy needs at those mills. In fact, the company sells some of the excess energy the plants generate back to the local grid. Other byproducts, including fluff pulp, end up in products such as diapers.
But according to Don Atkinson, Vice President of Marketing and New Products at Weyerhaeuser, researchers at the company realized that cellulose, the most common organic compound on Earth that also gives trees their strength and durability, could become a viable alternative to conventional plastic.
Meanwhile, Ford, in part because of consumer interest, has long explored including recycled and renewable components with its cars. Some models feature upholstery made from recycled PET bottles and has experimented with corn fabric and soy foam. Much of Ford’s motivation is practical: plastic is no longer cheap due to surging petroleum prices, so the company’s scientists are open to finding new innovative materials.
But there’s a catch: Ford insists that any plastic alternative must have the same physical properties, meet the company’s performance and quality standards and of course, match conventional plastic in price.
The two companies initiated contact 10 years ago and have been working closely together for 18 months. In an interview with Dr. Ellen Lee, one of Ford’s researchers, she described the potential that tree cellulose offers Ford.
Pure cellulose is a sturdy reinforcing fiber, and is critical for many of the parts that automobile drivers take for granted. Door handles, knobs, air vent panels and shifters are among the the parts for which pure plastic is not strong enough–so manufacturers reinforce plastic with minerals or glass fibers to withstand the mold injection process and years of use by car owners. And then there are the environmental advantages. “Plastic made from natural fibers is less dense,” said Lee, “so you use less of it, and that also decreases the carbon footprint.”
Researchers at both companies found that although the base material for cellulose-based plastic is more expensive than the petroleum version, manufacturers require less of it to create the same amount of parts. The cycle times for plastic parts derived out of wood, from start to finish, are also 30 to 40 percent faster.
Cellulose does not retain heat, nor does it require as much heat as petroleum during the manufacturing process, so the fuel conserved is both an environmental and cost benefit. For now the companies are working together on an armrest prototype, but research on manufacturing other parts is on the drawing board.
Barriers to Plant-based Plastics
Weyerhaeuser’s Atkinson acknowledges that there are challenges with plastic that comes from a tree and not an oil rig. Automakers and their suppliers have used the same materials for decades, so changing minds is difficult.
There is also a perception in the marketplace that plant-based plastics just cannot scale to meet the industry’s needs.
Many professionals are also just not convinced that cellulose is a viable reinforcing agent.
Finally, the bottom line is paramount – cost is key.
Nevertheless, both Atkinson and Lee were bullish on the future of green plastic. “When you think of where this plastic starts from, all from forests that are sustainably managed,” said Atkinson, “new green plastic replacing old black, petroleum-based plastic is an exciting prospect.”