This Sunday is National Tequila Day (really), and Ford is making its toast by taking a shot toward sustainability with Mexico’s proud spirit by teaming up with Jose Cuervo to make car parts from agave.

The environmentally conscious collaboration, part of the automaker’s #FarmtoCar campaign, entails researchers exploring and testing the use of the seven-foot tall, desert-climate plant to develop a sustainable bioplastic material to incorporate in Ford cars and trucks.

By successfully developing the sustainable composite, it gives the agave fiber byproduct a second chance at usefulness, all the while reducing the overall weight of the car—an average car has about 400 pounds of plastic—to help improve fuel economy and decreasing the overall impact cars cause in the environment.

The spirits maker’s and motoring manufacturer’s partnership positions the two iconic brands to be innovators in waste-based materials research.

Debbie Mielewski, Ford’s senior technical leader of sustainability research department, joined [a]listdaily to talk about why Ford is using new methods to go green.


How did Ford identify that making car parts out of agave byproducts would be their next frontier?

Ford has been exploring the use of sustainable materials for years, with the goal of reducing the use of petroleum-based plastics in its vehicles. We currently use eight sustainable biomaterials in our vehicles, including soybeans, cellulose, castor oil, wheat straw, kenaf fiber, wood, coconut fiber and rice hulls, and have researched the use of other innovative materials such as tomato skins and captured carbon dioxide. When we first started discussing the opportunity of using agave as feedstock, Jose Cuervo was the first name that came to mind and we approached them with the idea to source small amounts of agave for our initial research. Given the company’s commitment to agave sustainability, the team was eager to work together to explore opportunities to give agave a second life after the tequila manufacturing process.

Ford is currently in the research phase investigating mechanical properties. Can you please explain how the agave process will exactly work? And for what particular parts of the car?

We put the agave fiber through a chopper to get the right particle size (less than three millimeters) for the extrusion process, which involves mixing the particle fibers with the plastic. We use about 20 percent fiber to reinforce our plastics. The mixture is then put through injection molding to shape into the part that we want. We are currently in our initial research phase, where we are molding simple parts and testing different geometric shapes. So far, the agave material has gone through all of the necessary screening tests (chemical, physical and odor) to help us determine the appropriate applications for the material.


When are you expecting to yield results to see if this process is actually possible? What’s the timeline looking like?

We are still in the research phase of this project to see if we can use agave fibers for application and initial assessments show that the material has potential, given its properties.

At first thought, alcohol and cars sound like an odd couple. How has the partnership with a booze brand been received so far?

Agave is just one of the many sustainable materials we are researching for application in Ford vehicles, and for many people, it is a pleasant surprise to hear that we are looking to repurpose many biomaterials in our vehicles, like soy foam or wheat straw. In this case, we are trying to find a new purpose for a material that could otherwise be landfilled or burned, and we have a good collaborator in Jose Cuervo to help us figure it out.

There are dozens of well-known tequila brands. Why was Jose Cuervo the perfect fit for this new initiative?

Like Ford, Jose Cuervo is a family-owned company with a rich history of being a visionary in its field, making tequila with the same craftsmanship and recipes for more than 220 years. More importantly, Jose Cuervo shares our vision and is deeply committed to promoting agave sustainability, which is why they were excited to work with us in finding a second use for their remnant agave fibers.


What other range of industries and brands have you worked with that offer a good source of natural waste products?

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. For example, we teamed up with Heinz in 2014 to explore the use of tomato fiber to create a more sustainable bio-plastic material for wiring brackets and storage bins in vehicles. In 2012, we also partnered with Heinz, Coca-Cola, Nike and Procter & Gamble to form the Plant PET Technology Collaborative (PTC), a strategic working group focused on accelerating the development and use of 100 percent plant-based PET materials and fiber in our respective products. Other partners include Unifi, where we use Repreve fiber made from recycled plastic bottles in our vehicle seats, allowing us to divert millions of plastic bottles from landfills.

How is Ford planning on further marketing and branding its push toward sustainability?

Sustainable materials research and development is a key element of the company’s broader sustainability strategy, and as a global company, Ford is always exploring new opportunities for sustainability not only in North America, but in other countries as well. For example, in Canada it’s too cold to compost wheat straw, so we started transforming it into bioplastics and is now featured into all Ford Flex sold in Canada.

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