Can the Gecko Help Reduce Our Plastic Footprint?

Despite the auto manufacturing industry's reputation for being a huge polluter, Ford Motor Company researchers have begun looking to nature to figure out how to be more sustainable. The gecko’s sticky toe pads might reveal some solutions.

For example, the glue used to adhere foams to plastics and metals can make disassembling car parts for recycling nearly impossible. But researchers are trying to figure out what magic enables the gecko’s pads to stick to most surfaces and release itself without creating a residue. Through a process called biomimicry, they hope to replicate the gecko and make their materials easily separable. 

If this innovative, lizard-inspired idea were to launch into a product, its various applications could drastically increase recycling rates across many different industries, according to Waste Dive.

Beyond recycling, Ford designers have started looking to biomimicry for nature-inspired technologies in the making of their products, not just in the post-consumer disposal. The automaker uses Unifi’s high-performance Repreve fiber, made from 100 percent recycled materials including plastic bottles, in its car seating materials and headliners. 

Recently, Ford hosted a forum with Procter & Gamble and The Biomimicry Institute for researchers to learn about biomimicry and how to apply it to everyday work. 

But the auto industry is still fraught with environmental "externalities"—the uncompensated cost of their manufacturing to consumers. Auto historian Mark S. Foster has estimated that “fully one-third of the total environmental damage caused by automobiles occurred before they were sold and driven.” He cited a study that estimated that fabricating one car produced 29 tons of waste and 1,207 million cubic yards of polluted air. Besides extracting petroleum and many other raw materials to process steel, plastics, glass, rubber and other products necessary to construct automobiles, the industry uses great amounts of energy.

According to Waste Dive, many municipalities and companies have high aspirations of reaching zero waste, however there are many obstacles that stand in the way of that goal. "Strong adhesives are one of those obstacles, creating a recycling challenge to which nobody has a solution."