A look at how car companies are using environmentally friendly materials in their interiors to further shift the industry towards sustainability – The Globe and Mail
Giving up a gasoline-powered vehicle in favour of an electric car can be a big step toward reducing one’s personal carbon footprint. But for environmentally conscious drivers, a holistic approach to sustainability goes well beyond what’s happening under the hood.
As consumers increasingly prioritize their spending on greener products, one major purchase that’s getting a sustainable makeover is the car. In an industry-wide shift, automakers of all types are making big investments in sustainable innovations for their designs, including where drivers engage with their vehicles the most – the interior.
“When most people think about sustainability in the auto industry, they usually think about emissions,” says Debbie Mielewski, the head of the technical sustainable materials group at Ford Motor Co.
And with the federal government aiming to have combustion-engine cars phased out in Canada by 2035, electric-vehicle technology is crucial for companies such as Ford. The automaker will continue to develop the category with a $30-billion investment through 2025, according to Ford chief futurist Sheryl Connelly, who is in charge of long-term thinking, planning and strategy at the company,
But in tandem with advancements in electric vehicles is work Mielewski’s team does researching, identifying and implementing recycled content and plant-based materials. The goal is to use such materials to produce parts that maintain or exceed the performance and quality of parts traditionally made primarily from virgin plastics. “We look at waste streams to turn literal trash into treasure for our products,” Mielewski says.
Ms. Connelly says Ford has been innovating in plant-based materials as an alternative to petroleum-based plastics since 2000. Ford began using material such as soy-based foam in 2007, wheat straw in 2010, kenaf in 2013, rice hulls and cellulose in 2014 and coffee chaff in 2019 for things including seating, storage containers, doors and headlights. More recently, it became the first automaker to produce car parts of 100-per-cent recycled plastics retrieved from oceans, such as discarded plastic fishing nets, which are used to make wiring harness clips in the Ford Bronco Sport. “These materials have helped to improve production efficiency, support vehicle weight reductions and avoid the use of fossil-fuel-based plastics,” Connelly says.
“Almost everything in the interior is a petroleum-based product or it’s not a recyclable product,” says Carla Bailo, president and chief executive officer of Center for Automotive Research, based in Ann Arbour, Mich. She says that, in keeping with automakers’ sustainability goals and the rapidly evolving function cars have in our lives, research in this area has ramped up recently. “As we think about the future of vehicle life cycles getting shorter and shorter and ride-sharing services, you really want to be able to disassemble the products and recycle the materials rather than just filling up our landfills.”
In addition to materials selection, Bailo says that optimizing the manufacturing process to reduce waste is important to car manufacturers’ goals of creating a circular life cycle for the product. “Not only is that sustainable, it’s just really efficient to not have all that scrappage, because scrappage is just dollars …….
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