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If it can be recycled or composted, chances are Debbie Mielewski wants to put it into your next car.

For years, Mielewski and her team of six have turned old jeans, soybeans and coconut fiber into seat cushions, coin bins and floor mats in Mustangs, Escapes and Flexes. She's Ford Motor Co.'s senior technical leader of sustainable materials, in charge of replacing petroleum-based substances used to make plastic and fabric with more environmentally friendly, cost-effective materials.

She often finds those materials in the trash cans and compost piles of local farmers.

"I'll take anybody's junk," she joked.

Her latest experiments include partnering with Ohio State University to take the white, sticky substance from dandelion roots to make rubber seals and gaskets. She's also testing the durability of miscanthus grass, cigarette filters and coffee chaff to reinforce certain plastic fibers, and whether algae can be used to make seat cushion foam.

"All the materials in a vehicle will eventually move to greener, more sustainable alternatives," she said.

Since the materials often are discarded, composted or plain unwanted, her team is creating new revenue streams for farmers who sell these materials to local suppliers and research teams like hers. They also help reduce weight in certain car parts by up to 30 percent, which could ultimately lead to improved gas mileage.

Mielewski's team had its first big breakthrough when it used soybean-based materials in the cushions of the 2008 model year Mustang. The soybeans, from Midwestern farmers, were cheaper than petroleum-based foams, especially when oil prices started to spike that year.

"After that, we started getting a lot of calls," she said.

Her team next began experimenting with fiber from wheat straw grown on farms in Canada. Once the wheat straw is ground up into a particle size and mixed with other plastic components, it comes out as a thread and is chipped into pellets and molded into bins for the Ford Flex, which is also made at Ford's Oakville Assembly Plant in Ontario, Canada.

The team also has used cellulose-based substances from trees in the armrests of the Lincoln MKX, and put coconut fibers in the trunk mats of the Focus Electric. As word gets out about her team's work, Mielewski said organizations and companies reach out to her offering their products.

The Federal Reserve has given her pounds of out-of-circulation money that she's ground up and turned into — what else? — coin trays. The H.J. Heinz Co., famous for its ketchup, has given her tomato skins to work into vehicle parts.

Ford also is working with Coca-Cola Co., Nike Inc. and Procter & Gamble to develop green, 100 percent plant-based plastic that could be used to make fabric and packaging.

The collaborations would likely please auto pioneer Henry Ford. The automaker's founder, son of a farmer, was fascinated by farm equipment, and some 1930s-era Ford vehicles had parts made of soybean-based plastics. And Mielewski said he'd be especially proud of their newest collaboration with OSU over dandelion roots; he often expressed dreams of being able to create his own rubber source, instead of spending money to ship the material from Asia.

But some of Mielewski's team's experiments have never gotten past the research lab.

A couple of corn-based plastics turned out to be less-than-durable, falling apart shortly after they were molded into their final panel shapes. The first time she experimented with soybeans, the end result was a stinky, brittle material that hardly resembled normal foam.

"It smelled like burnt popcorn," she said.

The successes and failures of Mielewski's team are not secret; she said she's willing to talk with other industries — mattress companies or farm machinery makers — about what they've learned so it can be applied by other businesses.

"Anybody who wants to talk to us about how to do it, we'll talk to them," she said. "There's so much to talk about, why wouldn't you share?"

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

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