Ford Takes Giant Baby Step With One Tiny Recycled Plastic Car Part

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Ford has just introduced a new car part made from recovered fishing nets, or “ghost gear,” and the company is billing it as the first ever use of recycled plastic from the ocean by the auto industry. That’s sure to catch the attention of other automakers eager to make an impression on the car-buying public. Ford is already one step ahead with plans to introduce a whole list of parts made from recycled ocean plastic, but it looks like there is plenty of wiggle room for others to pile on.

Who’s Gonna Pay For All This?

It’s easy to assume that Ford’s new recycled plastic car part is a publicity stunt. After all, it’s just a wire harness clip, it only weighs five grams, and it probably costs a lot more to manufacture than similar items made from virgin plastic. After all, somebody has to go out in the ocean, find some discarded fishing nets, haul them back to shore, clean them, dry them, and process them into pellets that can be molded into the shape of a wire harness clip.

That sounds like an awful lot of work for one wire harness clip, but Ford actually expects to save money on the item. According to the company, the recycled plastic clip costs 10% less than the standard variety and it involves less energy on the manufacturing end, too.

And, look at all the free publicity they squeezed out of one wire harness clip. Seriously, just look at it.

So Much Fuss Over One Recycled Plastic Clip From The Ocean

What a difference a year makes. Ford has introduced the new recycled plastic clip on the Bronco Sport, where it will serve duty as the part that holds the wires in place leading to the side air bags of the car.

The new part, though tiny, has cast a shade of greenliness all over the Bronco. That is quite a turnaround from just one year ago, when our friends over at Vice were calling the newly relaunched Bronco family an “obscene monument to climate denialism,” on account of the line’s oversized footprint and shrimpy gas mileage.

Perhaps Vice will revisit the issue soon. Ford began teasing an electric Bronco as early as July 2020, and it teased us again last spring. More recently, our friends over at Ford Authority noticed that the company has been showcasing the Bronco alongside two oversized electric vehicles it has been enthusiastically promoting, the F-150 Lightning pickup and the E-Transit van.

To ice the Bronco electrification cake, earlier this week Automotive News drew some additional hints from Ford CEO Jim Farley regarding a common platform for its electric pickup trucks, presumably to include the Bronco line

If the electric Bronco does happen, chances are that it will sport additional recycled parts beyond one pair of wire harness clips made from plastic harvested from the ocean. Plans are in the works for transmission brackets, wire shields, and floor side rails made from recycled ocean plastic, along with other parts to be named later.

That’s just the latest in Ford’s efforts to find alternative sourcing for car parts, including bio-based sources as well as hard-to-recycle waste such as spent 3-D printing powder.

Recycled Plastic From The Ocean Finds Its Footing

In addition to saving on cost, Ford asserts that the new recycled plastic clip meets virgin plastic on performance. That’s also quite a turnaround compared to just a few years ago.

In the past, uses for recycled plastic were limited due to inferior performance. Generally, most plastics were downcycled for use in carpet fiber, fabric and the like.  However, recent improvements have enabled recycled plastic to bust into new markets. The performance bar could be set even higher if and when next-generation recycling technology gets to market, in which plastics are broken down into chemical building blocks for reassembly.

That brings us around to DSM Engineering and Materials, and Hellermann Tyton, which are the two firms responsible for collecting the ghost gear and transforming it into wire harness clips.

DSM has been pitching its plastic made from derelict fishing nets since at least 2018, when it supplied its Akulon Repurposed recycled plastic to the surfboard company Starboard, for use in making board fins. Last year DSM also announced it is supplying its recycled plastic to the makers of the Gyre SeaCleaner wristwatch.

Hellermann Tyton is a big player in the somewhat unglamorous field of cable management. They are also a big fan of plastic car parts, which they see as a growth area, partly due to the rise of self-driving technology.

“Radars, lidars, cameras and other high-tech components need to be mounted to something, with lots of wires being routed throughout. The vehicles haven’t become bigger to accommodate these systems, so the engineering advantages of plastic are increasingly clear,” Hellermann Tyton enthuses.

They also see plastic car parts as playing a significant role in lowering the weight of cars, leading to improved battery range for electric vehicles, though steel industry stakeholders are scrambling to hold onto their share.

Let’s Start Talking About Ocean Plastic Pollution

Though it really is almost absurdly tiny, Ford’s new wire harness clip has already shed a new spark of light on the ocean plastic crisis in general, and the role of derelict fishing gear in particular.

According to DSM, ghost nets alone account for 640,000 tons of ocean plastic pollution every year, and they make up almost half the mass of the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In addition to killing off marine life by the hundreds of thousands, ghost nets are also responsible for damaging coral wreaths.

The ultimate solution to the ocean plastic crisis is to keep these lethal weapons from clogging the oceans to begin with, including the use of new bio-based materials. In the meantime, Ford’s little clip underscores the economic benefits of transitioning to a green economy in which waste has real value.

Aside from saving money on Ford’s side, DSM employs more than 300 people in the recycling value chain for Akulon Repurposed, including payments to local communities for collecting nets from beaches and coastal areas.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image (cropped): Ocean plastic pollution courtesy of DSM.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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