Consider the irony: materials that now adorn the interior of a Mercedes were once considered so much useless garbage to poor Brazilian farmers. Once, the lowly coconut husk found its highest calling as fertilizer: now it is processed into seats, headrests and sun visors for Mercedes' Brazil-made A-Class and commercial trucks. The production of auto parts from such a seemingly unlikely material is a result of a partnership between Daimler- Chrysler (DCX) and POEMA (Poverty and Environment in Amazonia), a research and development project formed to protect the rain forest and combat poverty in the Amazon basin. The partnership has existed for almost a decade, but it reached a new level this March with the opening of the 35,000-ft2. POEMAtec factory on the outskirts of the Amazonian city of Belem. When the plant is ramped up to full speed by the end of 2002, it will take in 45 tons of coconut fiber and 35 tons of natural latex per month and transform them into 80 tons of finished products. The plant will make seats, seatbacks, headrests and side noise absorbers for cars, trucks and buses made by DCX. (See box, "Coconuts Into Auto Parts"). It will also develop a diverse customer base by supplying parts to other vehicle makers. Both Volkswagen and Honda have approached POEMAtec; prototype production for seat bottoms and backs for VW vans and seats for Honda motorcycles has already begun. In fact, POEMAtec is using the Honda project to bring the use of natural materials to a new level; not only are the seats themselves made from natural fibers, but the prototype dies used to form them are made from resins harvested from the rainforest.
Making car parts from coconut fibers is not a new idea. Beginning in the 1940s, internal trim for doors, side panels and roofs were made of coconut fiber. But over the decades as products made from petroleum became cheaper and more convenient to manufacture, they replaced natural materials in cars and trucks. With the recent rises in petroleum prices and the growing desire within industry to use sustainable manufacturing methods and biodegradable materials, natural fibers are again catching on in the automotive industry. Coconut fibers are particularly well suited for industrial use since they are durable, resilient, well ventilated and contain tannin, a natural fungicide. (Cab drivers who ply their trade in steamy equatorial Brazil prefer seats made of coconut fiber to ones made of polyurethane due to their superior natural ventilation.) The fibers are carbon dioxide neutral, since they emit the same amount of CO2 when disposed of as they captured from the atmosphere while growing. And their life cycle as a manufactured part has been estimated at 90 years. (How many cars on the road today will be around in the next 20 years, much less the next 90?) Best of all, DCX reckons that its coconut fiber parts cost about 5% less than their polyurethane competitors.
Sustainable Productive Chain
"POEMAtec is the end of a sustainable productive chain," remarks Thomas Mitschein, who heads POEMA and founded POEMAtec. A scholar of sociology and economic history by training, Mitschein has been transformed into an entrepreneur who is leveraging the natural bounty of the Amazon region to provide a healthy standard of living for its inhabitants. His sustainable productive chain begins at the small coconut groves that are farmed by rural communities. By working with POEMA, the farmers have learned to grow a mixture of ground crops on land that used to be a monoculture of coconut trees. The result is an agricultural area that mimics the many different levels of plant life in the rain forest. The crops protect and nourish the soil and have led to a 300% increase in the coconut harvest. (One of the crops planted in the groves is the curaua, which contains nature's strongest fiber. DCX engineers are working with suppliers to try to replace the glass fibers in fiberglass with curaua.)
After harvesting the coconuts and removing the edible portion, the farmers take turns manning the processing center that uses low-tech, easily maintained devices to separate the fibers from the shell, and twist them into ropes, thus enhancing their elasticity. (Like auto workers in the U.S., the farmers excel at implementing common-sense measures that increase efficiency and make their lives easier. When faced with a rope-making device that was hard to turn, they substituted the rear differential from an ancient VW Microbus and turned out more rope with less work.) The ropes are later made into mats, which are coated with natural latex procured from a local rubber tree plantation, and pressed into parts.
Not Just Tree Hugging
While saving the rain forest is a laudable endeavor, DCX is still a for-profit company. As such, it applies three key criteria to its relationship with POEMA: local content, ecological soundness, and cost. First, the parts produced by POEMAtec are Brazilian-made from start to finish, which increases local content and helps DCX meet government requirements. Second, since the parts are sustainably produced and biodegradable, the company decreases each vehicle's potential impact on the environment, which puts it ahead of the game as environmental laws tighten. And finally, the parts cost less than the ones they replace—the cardinal rule in automotive purchasing. Helping to preserve the oxygen generating capacity of an area that has been called "the lungs of the planet" could easily end up being DaimlerChrysler's lasting contribution to the world, far outweighing the benefits of compostable headrests.
1. The process starts with coconuts harvested by small communities of farmers. After removing the fruit, the husk of the coconut (which used to be discarded or used for fertilizer) begins its journey to become a part of a Mercedes.
2. Workers at local cooperatives use simple machines similar to wood chippers to separate the fibers of the husk. This use of "appropriate technology" is simple, cheap and can be located near the source of supply. Separated fibers are then dried, sorted and baled for transport to POEMAtec's new manufacturing facility.
3. At POEMAtec the baled fibers are compressed to increase the density of the bales and treated with a conditioner to soften the fibers.
4. The bales are separated and fed into a machine that spins the fibers into long ropes. This twisting of the fibers increases their elasticity and helps to ensure that they have the proper cushioning qualities for their later life as seats and headrests.
5. The ropes are treated under high heat and pressure in an autoclave and afterward unraveled and loaded into a machine that forms the fibers into two- meter-wide mats.
6. The mats are cut into smaller pieces that are loaded into molds, pre-vulcanized with hot air, sprayed with latex, and finally pressed into their final shapes. Throughout the manufacturing process there is no material waste since all trimmings are re-used for new parts.