Scraps and waste materials – there is no such thing, according to Daniela Bohlinger. As Head of “Sustainability in Design” at BMW, she knows these materials can be given new life. Following this belief, she aims to equip all BMW Group vehicles with natural fibres and recycled materials in the near future.
A fresh take with a new point of view and redefined values – BMW Group vehicles are getting ready to undergo a series of changes in the near future. Hemp, kenaf, eucalyptus wood and yarn spun from plastic bottles already featured in the BMW i3 years ago. Since then, much has happened.
We spoke with Daniela Bohlinger, Head of “Sustainability in Design” at the BMW Group, about floor mats made of old fishing nets, the advantages of coffee grounds in vehicle interiors, and the current paradigm shift – both within the company and society at large.
Floor mats from old fishing nets, hemp and kenaf … what else is BMW putting into its vehicles?
Anything we can use to replace materials derived from petroleum with natural materials or recycled materials – in other words, all synthetics. The latter group of recycled materials includes items such as the nylon mats made out of old fishing nets you mentioned.
Can this be reconciled with your customers’ demands for premium products?
Absolutely! Material from secondary raw materials does not have to be inferior. The floor mats are a great example of this. A specialized industrial procedure was developed to regenerate nylon waste into a very high-quality nylon yarn known as Econyl. This material is so impressive that the famous hosiery brand Kunert has even launched a line of nylon stockings made of Econyl.
The share of recycled materials used in the BMW i3 is still only around 20 percent.
You mean that there is still a long way to go. Agreed! However, I’m confident that we can improve. At our company, there’s quite a change in thinking underway at the moment. Everybody is looking critically at their own work and across their department with an awareness of raw materials and their potential. Scrap materials are not waste products; they are the new raw materials. Take the selvedges in our fabric production for example: we’ve just developed a completely new design that gives the fabric a high-grade appearance and makes the small irregularities that arise during the manufacturing process look intentional. The material is now determining the design – instead of the other way around like it used to be.
This is where your expertise as a designer comes into play.
It is an exciting process because every alternative option and every new material opens up a whole range of fresh ideas and solutions. At the moment, we’re looking into wool made of kapok seeds and even uses for coffee grounds.
Did you know that coffee grounds absorb odours? We would like to take advantage of this property for the interior of vehicles. We haven’t fully developed this yet, but there’s a whole lot more to discover in this field.
Why don’t you make more of this public? Surely it would interest your customers.
We would like to market the floor mats specifically for our Mini: a MINI-mal carbon footprint suits the MINI. However, environmental responsibility is not a USP [unique selling point] for the BMW Group. For us, this is a fundamental belief that is deeply embedded in our corporate identity. This is precisely the view we want to pass on to our customers.
Sustainability is not synonymous with personal denial; it is innovative and attractive. We already proved this four years ago with the interior of the BMW i3, which featured a dashboard made of certified eucalyptus, leather tanned with olive leaves, hemp and a species of mallow known as kenaf.
So kenaf is the material that produced the slightly fuzzy surface structure?
Exactly. A lot has changed in terms of customer perceptions. We’ve established that sustainable materials don’t have to be quite as visible as they probably still are in the BMW i3. It’s good enough for the customer to know that a material is sustainable. They are okay with these types of natural materials showing traces of their previous life.
You have obviously been working hard to convince customers.
Absolutely, but we’re even going one step further by questioning the very value of the materials themselves. Why, for example, do car seats always have to be made of leather? In the old days, even the king sat on a seat made of textiles and only the coachman’s seat was leather. At Rolls Royce we’re now thinking about how we can bring back this perception of textiles as valuable.
If my car no longer belongs to me in the future, I probably won’t even care how valuable the seats are anyway.
It’s not just that. In a few years’ time, more and more people will be driving autonomous cars made of completely different materials that won’t belong to them. Instead of buttons and airbags, these vehicles will have large interactive touchscreens. We’re already considering the possible materials, their carbon footprints and ability to be recycled. Our suppliers are already working on manufacturing processes that will make new materials possible, like the Econyl used for the floor mats, which have yet to be discovered.