The Boss: Debbie Mielewski Made Ford Cars More Eco-Friendly

In The Boss, women share how they became successful and the lessons they learned along the way.

Today’s automotive industry is evolving at a blistering pace. In the not-too-distant future our streets could be filled with self-driving cars powered by electricity. Technology is innovating rapidly, and entirely new models for mobility and transportation services are being explored every day. For a 114-year old company, it’s both exciting, and a little unnerving.

While I’m extremely proud of everything happening at Ford Motor Company and in our industry, my focus – and passion – has nothing to do with new engines or the latest vehicle sensors. My goal is simple: to make Ford’s vehicles with as many renewable materials as possible. My team and I look for bio and plant-based waste streams and literally turn this waste into car parts. After decades of research, we’ve accomplished some pretty remarkable innovations. But the road to a more sustainable vehicle hasn’t always been easy.

I often get asked why the work I do is so important to me. I was raised by the ultimate environmentalist. My dad was a World War II veteran – a Depression-era kid. He was the king of reuse, reduce and recycle. He didn’t throw anything away until it was completely exhausted. It was just the way I was brought up. I can’t see an item – even a waste stream – without seeing the value in it. Even if I don’t have any need for it, I’ll find somebody who does.

In high school, my chemistry teacher – who I still keep in touch with today – saw talent in me where I did not at the time. He’s a big reason why I went in to chemical engineering, especially at a time where very, very few women were entering such fields. That education path, coupled with my dad’s ‘no waste’ mantra, paved the way for my work at Ford, and it all started with a seed of an idea.

A lot of people are familiar with soy – tens of millions of consumers eat and drink it every day. But what might come as a surprise is that many of us actually sit on recycled soy all of the time. This year marks 11 years since Ford first used soybean-based foam in the 2008 Mustang, and since 2011, it’s been a key material used in the seat cushions, seat backs and headrests of every vehicle we build in North America.

Now, more than 18.5 million vehicles and half a trillion soybeans later, we’ve saved more than 228 million pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. This is the power of using renewable materials – what comes out of a car’s tailpipe is just one part of the sustainability equation.

But just bringing the idea to market in the first place was a real challenge. The first foams my team and I developed using soy as an alternative to petroleum were disastrous. But we didn’t give up. After long months in the lab, we eventually figured out how to improve the formulations, rebalance the chemistries and remove odorous compounds. Ironically, my next hurdle wasn’t a technical one, but resided in convincing the company to implement our new soy foam seats.

Read more at Time Magazine