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It’s unsurprising that many car manufacturers are now providing leather-free and plastic free alternatives to parts and interiors. According to the animal welfare group PETA, the hides of three cows are used on average to cover the interior of one standard car and 130 chemicals are used in the tanning process causing significant environmental damage.

This special report takes a look at the growing trend for a guilt-free drive and why it may mean more vegan materials and recycled plastic in the future.

For renowned car designer Henrik Fisker, there is no question that the cars of the future have a duty to help save the earth.

The man behind iconic vehicles for BMW and Aston Martin is now in the process of bringing an affordable sustainable green electric SUV to market and it is expected to cost less than $40,000.

He recently told Auto Futures: “The vehicle will be as sustainable and as green as possible. If we can use recycled plastic we will. We are participating in cleaning up our beautiful planet.’’

But is there more that car manufacturers could be doing?

Jaguar Land Rover recently announced it is trialling an innovative recycling process which converts plastic waste into a new premium grade material with the aim of using it on future vehicles.

According to the latest statistics, the amount of plastic waste is predicted to exceed 12 million tonnes globally by 2050.

At present, not all this plastic can be recycled for use in the car industry because it fails to meet safety and quality standards.

JLR is looking to overcome this problem by working with chemical company, BASF, as part of a pilot project called ChemCycling that upcycles domestic waste plastic, otherwise destined for landfill or incinerators, into a new high-quality material.

Chris Brown, Senior Sustainability Manager for Jaguar Land Rover, says the initiative is part of a wider plan by JLR to reduce the carbon footprint of vehicles and make them eco-friendly.

He told Auto Futures: “The tailpipe emissions of a vehicle are just one part of the automotive industry’s environmental impact. But to be a truly responsible industry, we must look at the whole-life environmental cost of a vehicle.”

He adds: “That involves knowing the impact of the raw materials we use during the design and engineering of the vehicle, closing the loop by encouraging the use of recycled materials, optimising our vehicle manufacturing with zero waste to landfill for our UK operations and ensuring our vehicle can be recovered and recycled at end of life.’’

The circular economy

Using recycled plastic was the key to success for the partnership between the Mandalaki Studio and Italian car company Estrima.

It has resulted in the first electric concept car called the Biròwhich is made from 80 per cent recycled plastics and it was unveiled at Milan Design Week in May 2019.  

After discovering the large amount of waste left by road maintenance such as cones and signboards, Mandalaki began looking at what could be recycled.

The plastic waste was ground into a fine powder and put through a rotational moulding process to form the structural parts of the vehicle including the front and the rear.

The seats, tachometer, steering wheel and doors have been produced from vegan-friendly material – primarily thermo-formed PVC.

Giovanni Brusegan, who’s an executive for Estrima, says the wider aim of the vehicle was to prove that the whole-life environmental cost of a vehicle needs to be looked at by the automotive industry in the endeavour to make cars more eco-friendly.

He explained to Auto Futures: “Producing a car is more ecologically impactful than driving it, there is more pollution produced to assemble it, paint it, sell it, send it from the other side of the world than to drive it in its 8/10 years of life. Estrima tries to reduce this impact by producing simple vehicles, with the most recyclable materials possible. Batteries [used in electric cars] do not play in our favour and on this point we have a program to restore old batteries that aims to regenerate and reuse them.” 

He adds: “If an automotive manufacturer with all the constraints can make it, anyone can do it. It serves to demonstrate that it is not a chimera and that recycling is feasible for any industry.’’

Stancil V2

In March this year, Volvo won an award for its much-anticipated Polestar 2 car, its first fully electric mass-production vehicle with a vegan interior.

The car was unveiled at the Geneva International Motor Show and Volvo was also presented with a Compassionate Business Award from the animal welfare organisation PETA.

Volvo’s Polestar now sits with other luxury carmakers, including Tesla, Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz in offering high-performing vegan leather interiors.

Yvonne Taylor, a spokeswoman for PETA, said millennials and greater awareness through digital media about the slaughter and chemicals involved in producing leather interiors for cars are the reasons for the change of heart by the automotive industry.

She explains: “The leather industry is as toxic to the earth as it is cruel to cows. The change towards vegan interiors in cars is definitely consumer driven. You only have to go online to see how animals are slaughtered for leather and it’s all for profit. Many of these animals experience factory farming.”

“So many people think that leather is natural but it has to be treated using chemicals which damages the environment.’’

Greenwashing the carbon footprint of producing an EV 

According to Mark Jolly, director of Manufacturing and Professor of Sustainable Manufacturing at Cranfield University in the UK, “the current model for electric cars is not sustainable and is just a marketing exercise to appeal to millennials and Generation X.

“The issue has been greenwashed,’’ he tells Auto Futures.

“The big trend is electrical vehicles but if you look at the carbon footprint of an electrical vehicle it’s not as eco-friendly as it seems. In this country these cars run on the electric grid, in France these cars are run on sustainable energy, it’s nuclear. In Iceland and Norway it’s also a sustainable source of electricity.

Plug-in hybrid and full battery electric vehicles use 25-27% more aluminium than the typical internal combustion engine car today.

Professor Jolly says: “The majority of the world’s aluminium is manufactured in the China, Russia and Gulf states, and the energy used to produce that aluminium is from fossil fuels.” 

“The problem is that anything that’s imported into the country, the carbon foot print is ignored. The carbon footprint stays in the country where the raw materials are produced so the foot print is much higher than reported. We are just replacing one problem with another and it is no better for the planet.”

He adds: “Manufacturers should be honest about the carbon foot prints of all the materials, including the batteries, used to make an electric car.’’

Plant-based plastics

One possible solution being examined by Selena, a research group in Poland, is to use plants that are not used in the human food chain as a potential source of eco-friendly plastics.

Called the Biomotive project, it has been awarded €15mn from the EU. Car dashboards and other interior components could soon be made from bioplastics, reports Wojciech Komala, Selena’s research and development director.

Plant chemicals are used to synthesise polymers in the lab – a natural process created for industrial use. The bioplastics that result can be heated and injected into a mould or 3D printed like any conventional plastic.

In theory it is greener than using oil since plants are renewable carbon sinks – that is they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Professor Jolly is calling for immediate changes that would lead to fewer vehicles on the road and a better transport system: “If you reduce the number of vehicles manufactured, you’ll reduce the carbon footprint of the country.”

He concluded: “We need to change our attitude – we should be designing vehicles that last longer and can be given a facelift. We should be designing for upgrade, for re-use – let’s re-use stuff and perhaps not own as much stuff!’’

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