Ford Is Using McDonald’s Coffee Waste For Car Parts

As we enter the 2020s, we as a society are bursting at the seams with potential. These next ten years can and must be a turning point in the history of our relationship with the environment. We are ten years away from the Paris Agreement’s deadline of 2030. This first deadline is for each country that signed the agreement, thereby promising to do everything in their power to reduce emissions. This will allow us to keep the world’s temperatures below 2°C higher than pre-industrial times. In 2018 we already hit 1°C above pre-industrial temperatures. In our daily reality, 1°C  may not seem like much; you barely feel the change in the room by 1°C. But on a global scale, these 2°C above standard are devastating to all ecosystems, including our own. It’s what’s increasing the number of fires all over the world, floods, and freak-of-nature storms.

This is why it is so crucial for us to step up and make the changes necessary in our daily lives to reach these goals. It is even more critical for the major businesses in our countries to do this. The major businesses—including fossil fuel, meat and dairy, transport, clothing, beauty, and others—do the most harm because of how massive they are and how much we, as a society, love to consume. That’s why we need to vote with our money to change the supply-and-demand chain. Nonetheless, these businesses are run by people who also live on this planet; all of these people have the choice to take the more sustainable, eco-friendly route.

Ford and McDonald’s have joined in a partnership to do precisely that. Although they’re starting small, these companies are taking steps to run their businesses in a more circular manner. McDonald’s sells over 500 million cups of coffee each year. Not even taking the consumer waste of using disposable cups into account, there is also more waste in the production of the coffee itself. When coffee beans are roasted a skin, called chaff, comes off that is usually just thrown into the trash, not compost. Although, at first glance, this doesn’t seem like a lot of waste, when you realize how much coffee is consumed from McDonald’s alone each year, this is a huge step to reducing the waste that ends up going to the landfill and heating up our planet.

Debbie Miewelski, senior technical leader of material sustainability for Ford, has connected with McDonald’s coffee suppliers to collect this coffee chaff and use it for headlight encasements. Traditionally, the plastic covering for cars is made out of plastic and talc, a non-renewable mineral. Talc is used as a reinforcement to protect the plastic from shattering. This is important in headlight encasements as the vehicles can potentially go at extreme speeds with debris flying at the headlights. Chaff, a renewable and wasted resource, provides just as much structural support to the encasements as talc.

Ford has been working on improving the sustainability of the production of the vehicles for a while now. Soy-based foam has been making a debut in the seat cushions since 2011. In 2014, the auto company replaced the fiberglass in some of its Lincoln models with cellulose fibers. Ford also used rice hulls, a byproduct of rice grain, as talc replacement in the 2014 F-150. The popular truck model also features recycled tires, carpet, soda and water bottles, and post-industrial plastics.

Although I was ecstatic to hear that people like Debbie Miewelski are out there trying to make a difference in these multi-billion dollar companies, it’s hard to not worry about whether these changes are enough. After all, 20 out of 24 of the models Ford currently sells still run on fossil fuels. Is using coffee bean shells and recycling tires enough to outweigh that? In 2018 alone, the auto company sold 5.9 million cars—that is not counting any cars that are already on the road or used vehicles that have been sold. We all know the detrimental effects that the fossil fuel industry has on the environment, so if Ford is committed to more sustainable production, why aren’t they producing more EV or Hybrid cars, or developing a circular-economy solution around collecting and refurbishing used cars?

What really threw me off was realizing that McDonald’s wasn’t really a part of this equation. Although, yes, it’s their coffee waste that’s being used, but since Ford is working with the suppliers of the coffee, McDonald’s isn’t affected by the partnership at all. They still get their coffee, and they don’t have to work with Ford to save and reuse the chaff directly. In 2016, it was reported on average, McDonald’s used over 1 billion pounds of beef; this equates to 5.5 million cows. With the fast-food chain still growing, I can only imagine how much this number has skyrocketed in 4 years. Burger King, KFC, Carl’s Jr., Del Taco, Subway, and so many other competitors have already started offering vegan options. So what is taking McDonald’s so long? VegNews recently released a quote from the fast-food chain’s CEO, Steve Easterbrook. Although they are thinking about testing a vegan menu, Steve is worried that the “additional complexity” might not be worth it. I’m sure we would all agree that over 5 million lives are worth it.

None of us can be perfect, but it’s the act of constantly trying to improve that will save our planet. Someone at Ford recognized the need to start improving the way the system was run and hired Debbie Miewelski. This was a big step, and I hope 2020 brings along more environment-focused innovation, and hopefully, more electric vehicles. It is up to all of us to ask these companies to make these changes. If we keep asking, tweeting, sharing, emailing and speaking up, these giant corporations will see that “the complexity is worth it.”

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Photo: by Gerson Repreza via Unsplash

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