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Vehicle parts made from recycled plastic bottles being installed at Chicago Assembly Plant

Ford vehicles get a final inspection at the Chicago Assembly Plant.

When you toss that empty bottle of water or pop into the recycling bin, there's a chance it may end up in a vehicle on the road.

Ford has been increasingly turning recycled plastic bottles into vehicle parts that are installed in all its cars and sport utility vehicles, including the vehicles made at the Chicago Assembly Plant in Hegewisch.

The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker said it puts roughly 300 plastic bottles in each vehicle, using them mainly for the underbody shields. The plastic — which is shredded, extruded and weaved with other fibers in a textile process after it's recycled — helps reduce weight and improve fuel economy by an average of two miles per gallon.

“The underbody shield is a large part, and for a part that big, if we use solid plastic, it would likely weigh three times as much,” Ford Design Engineer Thomas Sweder said. “We look for the best materials to work with to make our parts, and in this case, we are also creating many environmental benefits."

Ford started using recycled plastics for the wheel liners of the European version of the Escort back in 2006. The company has since increased use of the recycled material by putting it in underbody shields to improve aerodynamics. Ford estimates it now uses 1.2 billion recycled plastic bottles per year, helping keep them out of oceans and waterways.

“Ford is among the leaders when it comes to using materials such as this, and we do it because it makes sense technically and economically as much as it makes sense for the environment,” Sweder said. “This material is very well suited for the parts we’re making with it, and is extremely functional.”

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.