Debbie Mielewski, Ford senior technical leader, sustainability and emerging materials research team, says the partnership started simply. She was drinking a cup of coffee and decided there must be a sustainable opportunity beyond the obvious—looking past just the cup and coffee itself.
Ford realized it could convert the chaff into a durable material by heating it to high temperatures under low oxygen, and then mixing it with plastic and other additives and turning it into pellets. That material could then be formed into various shapes, like headlamp housing and other interior and under-hood components. The result isn’t just a lighter and more sustainable material, but one that also has better heat properties. “That’s super important for a headlamp housing because the lightbulb comes through the housing and it produces a lot of heart right around the plastic,” she says.
Mielewski adds Ford is saving about a pound a vehicle with the parts swap. And that’s by reusing what is considered a waste product.
Naturally, Ford looked at McDonald’s production and its own light bulb went off. A billion cups of coffee equal a whole bunch of chaff, Mielewski says. McDonald’s is now supplying the chaff to biotechnology company Competitive Green Technologies, who processes it for Varroc Lighting Systems, Ford’s supplier of headlamps.
To Olson’s earlier point, Mielewski believes consumers will care about the change once they see it in front of them. “Everybody talks about waste and landfills and ocean plastic, but here’s an example of utilizing materials that are considered waste,” she says. “And so, this really should click in people’s heads that this is a big deal. It’s a big achievement. We can make durable product with something we used to burn in the field.”
To the business angle, she says, companies should want to engage in a circular economy instead of just taking their waste to the landfill. “We’re going to work hard to talk about it’s not just about McDonald’s and Ford,” she says. “It’s about all big industry working together to share these byproducts so that we use less and damage the earth less.”
Olson says partnerships of this nature are key for McDonald’s because it brings together two accessible brands to tell a broader story. It resonates more than McDonald’s simply sending out its own messaging. “How do we engage? And how do we make people feel good about the brand that they’re frequenting and purchasing things from overall?” he says.