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Cars From Coconuts

DaimlerChrysler and Ford have launched sustainable, environmentally sound projects to turn agricultural waste in the developing world into car seats.
 
 
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The northern Brazilian state of Pará, set in the largest contiguous tropical rainforest in the world, is four times the size of Germany but has a tiny fraction of that industrialized country's economic activity. That's why defenders of the rainforest say it's important to build a sustainable economy in Brazil's rural areas, where a quarter of the country's 167 million people live.

It starts with coconuts. There's a well-established market for coconut milk and meat in Pará state, but coconut shells traditionally have been discarded or burned, adding to the pall of smoke already hanging over rainforest land cleared for subsistence agriculture. In a small way, that situation is changing as the unlikely partnership between a tiny Brazilian nonprofit group and one of the world's biggest auto giants, DaimlerChrysler, is getting those coconut shells out of the waste stream.

In the small community of Praia Grande on idyllic Marajó Island off Brazil's northern coast, 10 workers are employed by the modest, low-tech factory that processes the coconut fiber, turning it into headrests and seat padding for Mercedes cars and trucks. There are eight facilities like the one on Marajó Island, and together they keep 900 farm families at work gathering the coconut husks.

The coconut project began in 1991, with the creation of Program Pobreze e Meio Ambiente na Amazônia (POEMA), which uses sustainable agriculture to protect the rainforest from short-term subsistence farming.

The German connection was established early on. Willi Hoss, a former Green Party member of the German Parliament and an unofficial ambassador for the Federal University of Pará, approached the Brazilian subsidiary of DaimlerChrysler (then Daimler-Benz) for financial and technical support. A German-born sociology professor at the university, Dr. Thomas Mitschein, became POEMA's director in 1992, and he launched the coconut project as well as a series of clean water and sustainable agriculture projects around Pará state. "We saw that 11 percent of the Brazilian rainforest had become altered or degraded, and our challenge was to come up with ways to rebuild those altered areas while also creating livelihoods for the people here," says Mitschein. "It was a big challenge. But the development model then being followed was a scenario for destruction."

According to Enrique Vascos, who heads the Praia Grande smallholder association, coconut yields have more than doubled since the farmers began planting a variety of soil-enriching field crops (including limes, bananas and a variety of palms) to supplement what had been a coconut monoculture. In addition, says Vascos, a POEMA-sponsored wind- and solar-operated clean water system has eliminated the parasites that used to plague the children of the community.

The initial coconut operation is decidedly low-tech. The husks are soaked in water to loosen the fibers, then hand-fed into a grinder powered by a small electric motor. The fibers are twisted into ropes and sprayed with natural latex, which increases their elasticity. DaimlerChrysler helped pay for a $3.5 million semi-automated plant in Ananindeua that creates the headrests, sun visors, interior panels and other parts made from the fiber base for Brazilian-made Mercedes cars and trucks. By the end of 2001, the plant will be able to manufacture 30 metric tons of coconut products per month; it's enough work to provide income for more than 5,000 people.

DaimlerChrysler is now simply a customer of POEMATEC, the for-profit arm of POEMA, which is also in negotiations to become a supplier to Honda and Volkswagen. The Brazil operation mirrors a similar program in South Africa, where DaimlerChrysler is working with local farm workers to process sisal leaves, which are combined with recycled cotton to make material for use in rear parcel shelves for Mercedes-Benz C-Class cars.

Ford is also getting involved in sustainable development, though in a completely different way. The company's Rouge Plant, a 15 million-square-foot symbol of the industrial age, was built by Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan in 1917. Now his great-grandson, William Clay Ford, Jr., is overseeing a $2 billion redevelopment of the site as a model of sustainability. It will even have a grass roof.

"This factory roof will have four inches of water running through it," says William McDonough, the environmental architect who is piloting the project for Ford. "The water will flow through living systems, get polished by plants, then flow back into the Rouge River. How many industrial plants can say that they produce oxygen?"

The emerging site includes porous parking areas that absorb water rather than run it off into storm drains. "We want to restore the Rouge River, not just reduce the pollution flowing into it," McDonough says. Where the company's coke ovens once stood, Ford is practicing phytoremediation, or the use of native plantings to heal contaminated soil and groundwater. The plan also includes more use of day lighting and natural ventilation, and the planting of more than 1,500 trees. "Greenscreens," or trellises covered with thick, flowering vines, will help shade the plant, and fuel cells will help power it. Plant operations will also be cleaned up, especially the paint shop, which is the center of toxic emissions at most automobile manufacturing sites.

William Clay Ford, Jr. describes the Rouge restoration as "a multi-tiered, 20-year project." The plan, he says, is to transform the venerable plant into "a very human place to be with incredibly interesting environmental attributes. Over time, it will become a model for closed-loop manufacturing. We hope it becomes the most-studied manufacturing plant in the world, just as it was back in its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s."

Neither Ford nor DaimlerChrysler could be described in 2001 as models of sustainability. These are, after all, companies that produce sport-utility vehicles by the millions and fight against clean car legislation. But if these two projects are any evidence, they're making progress.