In a new partnership with McDonald’s, Ford is using coffee chaff—the dried coffee bean skin that comes off during roasting—to build car parts.
The United States produces around 1 million pounds of coffee chaff per week, according to Debbie Mielewski, Ford’s senior technical leader of the sustainability and emerging materials research team. Some of that waste is used for compost or poultry bedding, but a lot of it ends up being burned or put in landfills.
“There’s no shortage of chaff,” Mielewski said.
While Ford’s research team has been testing plant-based and recycled materials for more than a decade, the idea for using coffee byproducts came from a very relatable place—Mielewski’s lab’s coffee addiction. “I have coffee with me morning, noon and night,” she said. “I thought there must be something here.”
So the team went looking for a coffee byproduct to use in auto manufacturing. And after successful tests with chaff, Ford approached McDonald’s, which sells a billion cups of coffee per year, about a potential collaboration.
McDonald’s has a sustainability plan “very similar to Ford’s,” Mielewski said, making it a natural partnership.
“Like McDonald’s, Ford is committed to minimizing waste and we’re always looking for innovative ways to further that goal,” Ian Olson, senior director of global sustainability for McDonald’s said in a statement. “By finding a way to use coffee chaff as a resource, we are elevating how companies together can increase participation in the closed-loop economy.”
Come December, Ford’s Lincoln Continental will be the first car to contain parts made with coffee chaff, after which Ford hopes to expand the use of the chaff composite to more of its vehicles.
The chaff is combined with plastic and additives to create a lightweight composite that’s resistant to high heat, making it a perfect material to house a car’s headlamp. Right now, the material used for that piece of the car is made from a composite that uses talc, a dense mineral that’s mined from the earth.
Swapping out the talc for coffee chaff requires more plastic, because chaff is much less dense, but produces a lighter material which, in turn, improves fuel efficiency. Each headlamp requires the chaff from about 300,000 coffee beans.
In a five-minute video called “Executives in Cars Talking Coffee” produced by Insomnia Advertising, Mielewski finds Olson at a McDonald’s drive-thru. She picks him up in a bright orange Ford Mustang and takes him on a tour of the Ford research lab, and then to a car manufacturing plant to point out the piece of the car that’ll be made of chaff.
Looking ahead, Mielewski plans to continue to swap out traditional materials with recycled and plant-based ones. She’s also hoping to partner with other large corporations on sustainability initiatives like this one. Currently, she and her team are working with agave fibers through a partnership with Jose Cuervo that they’re hoping they’ll be able to use to reinforce parts in Ford’s Mexican manufacturing plants, but it’s still in the early stages.
“It’s gonna take all of industry working together to develop a circular economy where materials aren’t used just once, but are used over and over and over and over before hitting the landfill,” Mielewski said. “That’s the dream, to use a lot less.”