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Ford, Jose Cuervo and the future of waste-based materials

How do you turn tequila byproducts into car parts? It's all part of a much bigger push to develop viable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics.

With thick, spiky leaves that can grow up to 7 feet tall, so-called "blue agave" is a hearty plant that grows in high-altitude desert climates. The succulent's claim to fame: being the essential ingredient in authentic Mexican tequila.

Luckily for distillers such as Jose Cuervo, agave grows well when cultivated in arid regions such as Southern Mexico. Still, with a processing volume of 200-300 tons per day, the company is often left with considerable waste from the 90-plus-pound plants — which is exactly what appealed to the company's unlikely new business partner.

After years of experimenting with wheat straw-blend plastics and upholstery threaded with recycled PET bottles, Ford Motor Co. was in the market for other unconventional material feedstocks — a pursuit that led to a deal announced this week for a small-scale material research project using Jose Cuervo's would-be agave waste.

Aside from agave's dense, fibrous properties, the American automaker has been especially interested in materials found in plentiful supply near manufacturing hubs. 

“We have been looking at farm-to-car just like people in society are looking at farm-to-table, local foods," said Debbie Mielewski, Ford's senior technical leader of materials sustainability, in an interview with GreenBiz. "We were thinking, 'We have an assembly plant in Mexico: What is heavily grown there?'"

While it's still very early days for envisioning what an agave-based material supply chain might look like, the joint effort is reflective of a much bigger trend toward corporations looking to leverage relatively cheap would-be waste materials in the pursuit of more efficient and sustainable production. The goal of reducing reliance on virgin materials by leaning on re-used substances is also pillar of the "circular economy" concept gaining traction in green business circles.

Companies from Speedo to General Motors are embarking on their own re-manufacturing efforts. The U.S. Business Council for Sustainable Development is even trying to digitize the process through an online materials matchmaking platform.

Bio-based plastics are one part of the equation. Advanced materials breakthroughs such as industrial-grade 3D printing and the evolution of promising synthetic options such as graphene and various nanomaterials are also an area attracting more attention and investment dollars.

While innovation is all well and good, the wave of interest in new materials inherently poses a supply chain dilemma. Similar to the predicament that companies such as Apple are facing in the realm of renewable energy — whether they want to become energy companies in their own right to catalyze clean energy development — companies investing in new manufacturing building blocks must either wade into materials processing themselves or get suppliers on board.

“Of course Ford doesn’t produce plastic," Mielewski said. "We have to get the supply base as excited as we are."

New links in supply chains

Companies such as Ford, with its $150 billion-a-year revenue stream, have the funds and expertise for material science R&D. Mass production of unconventional or advanced materials, however, is another issue entirely.

In the case of alternatives to petroleum-based plastic, Mielewski said the trick is finding a middle man, likely a plactics compounder, willing to collect a waste product from a source such as Jose Cuervo, turn it into a useful material, then sell that material to a customer such as Ford.

"The hard question now is who will be the material supplier," she said. "Jose will supply the fiber to a plastics compounder, and this is an opportunity for them to develop their own material supply."

Finding ways to incentivize suppliers to adapt their equipment and operations to a range of new materials is also an issue in other areas, such as biofuel development. Another shared dilemma is how to determine the best way to use a given substance — the infamous "food-versus-fuel" problem — making non-edible crops such as agave more appealing for other uses.

Companies investing in new manufacturing building blocks must either wade into materials processing themselves or get suppliers on board.

Still, there are also more practical consumer considerations to keep in mind when it comes to commercializing new materials.

“We do have some odor issues," Mielewski said of the new agave-plastic hybrid under development. "It has sort of a burnt coffee smell, but we have learned how to remove that out of other fibers. You wouldn’t want that in your cabin every time you got in."

As is, she said the agave-based material would be suitable for under-the-hood uses, with the potential to expand use in the future.

Although the recycling industry as a whole has warned that low oil prices are having a chilling effect on development of alternative plastics in particular, Mielewski said that the biggest financial hurdle is actually getting a new project off the ground.

“We roll things out one at a time, program by program, and the volume is ridiculously low," she said. "We’re doing things like working with other companies to maybe be able to get access to their pricing in volume to be able to launch. Once you get the volume, then the business case isn’t too bad, even with petroleum low."

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