The automotive industry is in a constant state of change. Alongside autonomous driving and electromobility, this is one of the most important trends of recent years: the increasing focus on sustainability, recycling and recyclability. The role that sustainable materials such as plastic bottles, cow manure and fishing nets now play.
New materials and technologies are being developed in order to reduce the environmental footprint of vehicles while at the same time trying to improve driving performance and safety. But recycling is also becoming increasingly important. It’s quite bizarre: but even old plastic bottles now have a use. We have summarised here which other sustainable materials are also in the spotlight of the automotive industry:
Recycling plastic bottles is actually a growing trend in the automotive industry, a development that allows these bottles to be made into vehicle components such as carpets, seat covers and insulation materials. By using recycled plastic, not only can companies conserve resources, but they also improve their carbon footprint and reduce their environmental impact. FORVIA, for example, has developed "Ecorium", an alternative to animal and synthetic leather, with a significantly reduced carbon footprint – reducing CO2 emissions to one third compared to synthetic leather and 90% less than animal leather. With its multi-layer composition made of recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is also used to make the well-known PET plastic bottles, and its hemp fibres, "Ecorium" offers an amazingly high-end feel in premium quality. Car seat covers made out of plastic bottles are now almost old hat, having been used, for example, on the first Nissan Leaf. But gradually more and more manufacturers are turning to the unusual recycling of plastic bottles as car seat covers.
Plastic fishing nets that are lost or discarded in the sea undeniably pose a significant threat to the marine environment. Especially for the fauna: the marine animals eat the plastic particles or get caught in the nets. Numerous environmental organisations, some of them supported by the automotive industry, have started to collect and recycle these nets and also the plastic from the oceans in order to likewise make new materials for vehicles. Similar to the material of plastic bottles, these plastics can also be used to make seat covers, door panels or even complete consoles. By using recycled fishing nets, car manufacturers can do their bit to combat marine pollution and at the same time use innovative materials for their vehicles.
Hemp is a regenerative, renewable raw material that is increasingly used in the automotive industry. Hemp fibres are light, strong and they have a high tensile strength. They can be used as an alternative to glass fibres in composite materials so as to reduce the weight of vehicles and to lower fuel consumption. Hemp can also be used to produce bioplastics and car interior components, making the vehicle more environmentally friendly.
Using cow manure as a raw material may sound unusual at first, but researchers are working on converting this organic waste into bio-based materials. The quite complicated term "nanocellulose" is the magic word here. In other countries, paper products made of animal dung have long been available. So why not use it in motor vehicles, as long as the material does not cause any unpleasant odour? These materials can, for example, serve as substitutes for petroleum-based plastics in vehicle production.
Bioplastics are another emerging class of materials made out of renewable raw materials and they, too, are an alternative to petroleum-based plastics. Materials such as polylactic acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA) are derived from plant or microbial sources and can be used to make vehicle interior components, panels and even body parts. Bioplastics have the advantage of being biodegradable and compostable, making them easier to dispose of at the end of a vehicle's life.
Light metals such as aluminium and magnesium are becoming increasingly important in the automotive industry because they help to reduce the weight of vehicles and to lower fuel consumption. These metals are also easier to recycle than conventional steel and plastic components, resulting in higher recyclability and a lower environmental impact. Many manufacturers now use recycled aluminium, and the value chain is becoming more and more environmentally friendly.
Carbon fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP) offer high strength and stiffness with low weight, making them ideal for use in vehicle bodies and structures. In addition to CFRP, natural fibre composites are also being used more and more frequently as they offer an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional fibre composites. Examples include flax, jute or sisal fibres, which can be used in combination with bioplastics or recycled plastics to produce lightweight and sustainable vehicle components.
Glass is also being recycled. Used or waste glass from cars is crushed, sorted, melted down and then processed into new sheet glass. Even the steel from end-of-life vehicles is now no longer just used as structural steel, but it is indeed given a second lease of life as a secondary material in vehicle production. And the wheels keep on turning: tyre manufacturers are also exploring the use of sustainable rubber from other plants.
The automotive industry is increasingly using innovative materials and recycled raw materials to improve the sustainability and recyclability of its vehicles. Plastic bottles, cow pats, hemp and fishing nets are just a few examples of the materials of the future that could have a positive impact on our environment. By continuously researching and developing new sustainable materials and technologies, the industry will further reduce its environmental footprint and will make vehicle manufacturing even more sustainable.