Even in the early heydays, Henry Ford was fond of using plants like hemp and straw to reinforce plastic components for his cars. Now bioplastics are back and turning up in cell phones, forks, and more. Ford Motors started trying out soy-based seat foam a few years back, and is now expanding its palette of plant plastics. It's a small step, but the 2010 Ford Flex will be the first car to feature a plastic part that contains wheat straw.The Flex's third-row storage bin will be made from a polypropylene blended with 20% wheat straw, the brittle leftover of wheat harvesting. This modest step, says Ford, will cut the need for some 20,000 pounds of petroleum and prevent 30,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year. And this is just the start. Ford claims it is "advancing a strategy to migrate this bio-based material to numerous other interior, exterior, and under-hood applications for multiple product lines." According to the company the wheat straw plastic actually performs better than conventional resins, having better "dimensional integrity," and weighing 10 percent less than plastics reinforced with glass or talc.
Wheat straw, the hollow stalks left behind after wheat is harvested, is considered an agricultural byproduct, and so is thought to be a more sustainable bioplastic feedstock than edible crops like corn or soy (which have proved to be highly destructive crops when mass produced for biofuels). We've already seen wheat straw used for fencing and the pages of Canadian Geographic. When it comes to wheat straw, there is evidence that removing agricultural wastes from farms can exacerbate soil erosion. If the wheat straw industry gets big--if Ford starts replacing a significant percentage of its plastics with the stuff, for instance--problems could emerge. But for now we're happy to see oil replaced with something renewable and non-edible.