Jose Cuervo is working with Ford Motor Co to develop bioplastics from agaves remnant fibres

Jose Cuervo is working with Ford Motor Co to develop bioplastics from agave's remnant fibres

A fledgling partnership between Jose Cuervo and the Ford Motor Co underlines the potential for the innovative and environmentally positive re-utilisation of waste products from beverage production. Ben Cooper reports.

When it comes to addressing climate change, one of the perhaps understandably less common topics of public discussion is industrial symbiosis, the technical definition of a process which converts the waste product from one industry to the raw material for another. While the term may not resonate massively with the public, industrial symbiosis is by no means a new idea. However, it is likely to have an increasingly-telling contribution to make, as research and innovation establish more mutually-beneficial linkages between industries. IAnd, illustrating this trend perfectly is a new and striking example from the drinks sector.

The Ford Motor Co is partnering with Tequila producer Jose Cuervo to explore the manufacture of bioplastics using remnant fibres from the blue agave plant used in the production of Tequila. The resulting composite is being tested for its possible use in the production of vehicle interior and exterior components, such as wiring harnesses, heating and air conditioning units and storage bins.

Beverage production yields significant volumes of organic waste, and drinks producers have always been relatively resourceful in its re-use, with animal feed production generally featuring prominently. Indeed, Tequila producers already use remnant fibres as compost, while local artisans also use the co-product to make crafts and agave paper.

However, the escalating challenge of climate change has placed a greater onus on innovative industrial symbiosis that makes the most-productive and environmentally-valuable use of co-products. The origins of such mutually-beneficial arrangements were primarily economic, with Karl Marx suggesting more than a hundred years ago that such re-utilisation of industrial waste was the most important subset of economies in industrial production after economies of scale.

Today, it is the environmental benefits that are coming to the fore. Ford says the new composite holds "great promise" due to its durability and aesthetic qualities, and the new process will also help reduce its use of petrochemicals and contribute to lightweighting its vehicles with resulting climate benefits.

At present, this remains a research initiative, but Ford is clearly open to scaling up the sourcing of such plastics from the beverage sector. "Currently, we are only collaborating with Jose Cuervo in our initial research to understand the characteristics of agave for vehicle application," Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader within Ford's sustainability research department, tells just-drinks. "We may explore collaborations with other companies for other applications as well."

The partnership with Cuervo is Ford's only biomaterials collaboration with the beverage alcohol sector to date, but Mielewski says the company has already collaborated with food companies to research the potential use of other food waste streams, for example working with Heinz in the re-use of tomato skins and other fibres to develop a sustainable bioplastic for storage bins. "We are constantly looking for sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based products," she adds.

As many as eight biomaterials are now used in the production of Ford cars. Few Ford drivers are probably aware that as well as steel, aluminium and the other staples of the automotive trade, materials such as soy, castor oil, wheat straw, kenaf fibre, coconut fibre and rice hulls may have been used in the production of their vehicles.

Bioplastics research is also a critical area for soft drinks producers keen to drive down the environmental footprint across the value chain by maximising re-utilisation of plastic bottles. Given the reputational challenge for the soft drinks sector represented by the huge volumes of plastic bottles it creates, any company using discarded plastic bottles is doing soft drinks companies a considerable favour.

Along with brands such as Timberland, Adidas, New Balance and Dockers, Ford sources fabric for its car seats from Repreve, a specialist in synthetic materials made from recycled plastic. The motor manufacturer estimates this choice ensures the productive re-use of some 5m plastic bottles a year.

It is also no surprise to find that The Coca-Cola Co, itself a pioneer in the use of bioplastics, is among Ford's biomaterials partners. Not only has the car company worked with Coca-Cola in re-using plastic bottles in the manufacture of interior fabrics, it was also a partner with Heinz, Coca-Cola, Nike, and Procter & Gamble in the Plant PET Technology Collaborative (PTC), an initiative launched in 2012 aimed at accelerating the use of 100% plant-based PET materials and fibre in their respective products.

The tie-up between such unlikely and disparate partners as Ford and Jose Cuervo ensured that Ford's newest partnership received publicity but, more importantly, it epitomises a vital facet of sustainable business innovation. As with many sustainability challenges, industrial symbiosis depends considerably on imaginative cross-sector collaboration. It is bringing together parties who seemingly have nothing whatsoever in common, in the hope that new and significant solutions will be found.

"We believe that working across different industries can help us find innovative new methods and outcomes and we are always excited to find partners that share our vision for sustainability," says Mielewski. "For nearly two decades, we have worked to develop sustainable materials and have collaborated with a number of industry leaders and brands to find innovative uses for different waste streams."

It is unlikely that many of the 17.4m people who voted for the UK to leave the EU last month would have changed their mind had they known about the work of the European Commission on industrial symbiosis but it is potentially valuable work nonetheless. (Nor was it the only positive aspect of EU cooperation ignored in the campaign.)

Included in proposed legislative changes to support the EU's Action Plan for the Circular Economy, launched last December, are clarifications to the rules on waste aimed specifically at fostering industrial symbiosis. Meanwhile, Horizon 2020, the EU 'Framework Programme for Research and Innovation', includes support for research into industrial symbiosis.

The drinks industry may have a reasonable record on its re-use of waste materials, but there is no room for complacency. Research and scientific discovery will expand the scope of what is possible, and re-define what is sustainable. Mielewski says "out-of-the-box thinking" has been important to Ford as it has sought new ways to incorporate sustainable materials into its vehicles. Building towards a circular economy not only involves eliminating waste but also finding new ways to utilise co-products which may supersede and improve upon existing methods.

The Scotch whisky sector, for example, rightly prides itself on its longstanding productive use of co-products but the Scottish Government's first circular economy strategy, launched in February, highlights that better utilisation of waste and by-products across the beer, whisky and fish sectors could yield savings of between GBP500m (US$656.1m) to GBP803m a year, suggesting much more can be achieved.

It is just over 100 years since Henry Ford revolutionised the industrial economy by creating the moving assembly line. This made Henry Ford and his descendants rather wealthy. Such "blue sky" thinking is now required, not so much to guarantee continued wealth to industrialists, but to help ensure continued health to the planet they inhabit for centuries to come.