Building a more sustainable car, from headlamp to tailpipe

In the 1970s, Chrysler’s TV commercials played up its vehicles’ “rich Corinthian leather.” That meaningless phrase, dreamed up by marketers and cooed by actor Ricardo Montalban, became emblematic of what defined a luxury vehicle.

Fifty years later, those words have been replaced by elements that are creating a new concept of automotive luxury: recycled PET bottles, coffee grounds and tree fiber.

“The definition of a premium automobile is changing,” said Rudiger Recknagel, Audi’s chief environmental officer. “It’s now who’s using the best materials with the least environmental impact.”

As companies around the world turn their attention to reducing the effect their products have on the environment, carmakers are turning away from traditional materials that are hard to recycle, such as leather and plastics, and looking to alternatives that continue to convey quality. In manufacturing as well, they have moved to recycled components in an effort to use fewer resources and cut down on emissions.

Recycled materials make up 29% of a BMW vehicle, said Patrick Hudde, BMW’s vice president for sustainability supply chain. The company obtains 20% of its plastics from recycled materials, as well as 50% of its aluminum and 25% of its steel.

At Audi, the Mission: Zero program hopes to achieve a 30% reduction of vehicle-specific carbon dioxide emissions by 2025 compared with 2015, and to achieve carbon neutrality across its entire network by 2050; that includes suppliers, manufacturing, logistics and dealer operations.

General Motors expects to have 50% sustainable content by weight in its vehicles by 2030, said Jennifer Widrick, the company’s director of global color and trim. The company defines sustainable materials “as those that do not deplete nonrenewable resources or disrupt the environment or key natural resource systems.”

Ford Motor is making a headlamp in part from coffee chaff, the unusable skin of roasted beans. | FORD MOTOR CO. / VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
Ford Motor is making a headlamp in part from coffee chaff, the unusable skin of roasted beans. | FORD MOTOR CO. / VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES

And Volvo, the Swedish manufacturer, predicts that by 2025, 25% of its plastics will be bio-based or from recycled materials. In addition, Volvo is looking to reduce its carbon footprint by 40% in four years, compared with 2018, and to achieve climate-neutral manufacturing at that time.

“We’ve had to switch suppliers when they can’t meet our recycling standards,” said Anders Karrberg, Volvo’s head of global sustainability.

Ford Motor expects that by 2035, half of its plastics will come from recycled or renewable materials, and that the company will be completely carbon-neutral by 2050.

In addition to recycled metals and plastics, manufacturers are exploring the use of materials that were never before considered viable for vehicle parts.

Ford, in partnership with HP, a printer manufacturer, uses spent powders from 3D printers to create injection-molded fuel line clips on F-250 trucks. It has identified 10 other parts that can be made from this material.

Ford also has a partnership with Jose Cuervo, a tequila distiller, to use fiber from agave plants to reinforce window mechanisms. And at the end of last year, it introduced the use of headlamp housings made from coffee chaff, the unusable skin of roasted beans, that it buys from McDonald’s. The result: a housing with improved heat deflection, said Deborah Mielewski, Ford’s technical fellow of sustainability.

The company is looking at using orange and potato peels discarded by McDonald’s to make plastic parts more resilient, Mielewski said. And it’s exploring using nylon fishing nets, which are often employed in the sea for only a few weeks, to strengthen parts.

“I hate plastic,” Mielewski said. “I’m always worried about its impact on the environment.”

While much of the world devours, and then discards, single-use water bottles, carmakers have figured out innovative ways to use them in manufacturing.

In markets outside the United States and Canada, available seat material in Audi’s new A3 compact sedan and its coming Q4 electric vehicle is made from recycled 1.5-liter bottles made of PET plastic, or polyethylene terephthalate, which doesn’t degrade in quality when recycled. For the A3, 45 bottles are used, ground up to create a granulate that is turned into a polyester yarn, accounting for 89% of the seat material.

GM is also looking into using PET water bottles that can be made into fabrics, including carpet. It already converts recycled PET plastic for wheel well liners, and uses other recycled plastics for license plate and radio brackets.

Even Ricardo Montalban’s quintessential definition of automotive luxury, leather seating, is getting scrutiny.

General Motors' Hummer electric vehicle will be free of leather. | GENERAL MOTORS / VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
General Motors’ Hummer electric vehicle will be free of leather. | GENERAL MOTORS / VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES

Audi’s new high-end E-tron GT electric vehicle will offer a black design package that uses Dinamica, a suede-like microfiber, for seats. GM’s new electric Hummer will use artificial fibers for carpet, seating and headliners.

Polestar, the luxury electric subbrand from Volvo, uses a material it calls WeaveTech in lieu of leather. It’s derived from PVC and resembles the material in wetsuits. The company’s goal is to make all its interior materials from recycled PET bottles, said Fredrika Klarén, Polestar’s head of sustainability.

Klaren thinks customers will deem WeaveTech as luxurious as leather. “If you make the material beautiful, you will make it acceptable to the buyer,” she said.

Despite its high price, the electric “Hummer will be leather-free,” Widrick said. “We’ll use leatherette with a technical, repeatable, nonorganic grain.” And Ford is looking at a wide variety of leather substitutes, Mielewski said.

Lenzing, an Austrian company, creates fiber from trees grown in sustainable forests and supplies it to Range Rover for seats in its Evoque. It’s also working on projects with Audi and Volvo, creating woven “sustainable luxury” material as a leather substitute, said Georg Spindler, the company’s manager for specialty applications.

Yet using the proper materials is not the entire battle. When a vehicle reaches the end of its life, recycling sustainable products can still be a challenge.

BMW is designing vehicles with a reduced number of larger components to make recycling easier. Polestar wants to ensure that foam, which would make recycling difficult, is not stuck to its textiles.

And while not an immediate problem, carmakers are figuring out how to eventually recycle what will become millions of electrical vehicle batteries and their manufacturing scrap. This May, GM announced that it and LG Energy Solution will invest $2.3 billion to recycle battery materials, including cobalt, nickel, lithium, graphite, copper, manganese and aluminum, with 95% of the materials available for use in the production of new batteries. The process emits 30% less greenhouse gas than standard methods.

And Audi is working with a German-Indian company to use recycled batteries to supply green energy to rural Indian villages.

“These things make sense to do, for humanity,” Mielewski said.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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