electric vehicle on a highway

The auto industry has a plastic problem. Natural materials can help.

This month, leaders from around the world are meeting in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Conference to discuss strategies to curb carbon emissions and foster sustainable growth globally. One topic of conversation for the group: automobiles. 

According to the EPA, the transportation sector accounts for 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the United States. Pressure on the automotive industry to address the holistic environmental impacts of vehicles isn’t just coming from world leaders. Consumer demand for more sustainable options is also helping to fuel a rapid transition within the industry: Tesla and its founder Elon Musk are now household names; General Motors has committed to offering electric vehicles globally by 2025; Ford made headlines when it unveiled its all-electric F-150; and the list goes on. The number of electric vehicles on the road has grown substantially in the last decade, a trend that’s expected to accelerate in the coming years. 

While people generally recognize emissions, particularly from internal combustion engines (ICEs) as a major issue (and it certainly is), less well known are the impacts of producing and disposing of the rest of the vehicle, for example, the startling amount of emissions associated with global plastics production, including the variety of plastics used in automobiles. Even less well known is the large methane emissions footprint associated with the production of plastics like polyurethane, which is used in so-called “vegan” leather automotive interiors.  In other words, approximately one-sixth of global anthropogenic emissions and the associated toxic impacts tied to plastics production are underestimated based on the latest scientific observations. A holistic approach to building lower impact automobiles is clearly required and to do so means thinking beyond just the powertrain.

Electric motors are only part of the solution

With billions of metric tons of GHG emissions attributable to vehicles, it’s apparent action is needed, and it’s encouraging to see some automotive giants adding electric cars to their lineups. But as staggering as those figures are, the truth is that a vehicle’s emissions while in use are only part of the problem, and transitioning to electric motors is only part of the solution.

To truly account for the emissions associated with the transportation sector, it’s necessary to consider the entire production process and full lifecycle of vehicles — from the energy and impact of the raw materials that are used to make various parts to what happens to all those parts when a car or truck is no longer usable. 

Many of the materials used to manufacture vehicles today are far from sustainable. Chances are, if you’ve sat down in a car recently, you were likely sitting on and around dozens of types of plastic. As has been the case in other industries, automotive manufacturers are increasingly meeting growth demands by utilizing synthetic leather, also known as pleather or vegan leather, marketing it not only as an ethical, “cruelty-free” choice, but a sustainable one as well. Globally, the automotive industry is now the second largest consumer of synthetic leather. The truth is, no matter the name, pleather or vegan leather: plastic is neither a sustainable nor animal-friendly alternative to conventional leather

Plastic materials are not a sustainable option

Synthetic leather is made from petroleum-based plastics, most commonly: polyurethane (PU) or polyvinyl chloride (vinyl or PVC).

Like all plastics, PU and PVC are derived from petroleum or natural gas. Extracting fossil fuels to manufacture synthetic leather comes at the environmental and human cost of drilling, pumping, transporting, and processing finite fossil inputs. In particular, the carbon footprint associated with all the chemical processes that produce and manufacture plastics constitutes significant impacts — including emissions presently not accounted for by LCAs.  Moreover, it is also now being shown that drilling for fossil resources like methane is bringing new environmental toxicity risks.

Not only do PU and PVC cause tremendous harm on the production side, but at the end of their lives, these materials will eventually: 

  • get dumped in a landfill where they’ll leach harmful chemicals for decades; 
  • be incinerated, releasing carbon into the atmosphere; 
  • and/or disintegrate into microplastic pollution that ends up in our oceans, drinking water, and soils. 

Looking to nature

Natural Fiber Welding’s materials offer a truly sustainable solution to the automotive industry’s interior needs. MIRUM®, a leather-like material manufactured entirely from natural ingredients, has been demonstrated for use in auto interiors on several occasions, including with Porsche.  NFW was also recently featured as a key partner by Hyundai as part of the 2021 Mobility Innovation Forum.

MIRUM is an all-natural, plastic-free material. It is the only material on the market that can deliver on aesthetics, performance, sustainability, and ability to scale. It’s what inspired BWM iVentures to invest in NFW earlier this year

“While there is a burgeoning ecosystem of startups making alternative leather using a variety of technologies (e.g. mycelium-based, recycled leather, specific plant-based, lab-grown), they all have shortcomings in one (or more) of the following areas:

  • Perform comparably to leather (durability, resistance to abrasion, color-fastness, etc.).
  • Cost-competitive to existing leathers (i.e. animal or synthetic leathers).
  • Scalable to produce meaningful volumes for a number of customer verticals, particularly automotive.
  • Environmentally friendly with minimal carbon footprint.

NFW so far is the only company that checked all the boxes,” BWM iVentures wrote on its blog.

At NFW we’re energized by the opportunity to transform industries and create a future where consumers, by being loyal to the products they love — like their cars — are not forced to compromise between quality, value, aesthetic, and environmental stewardship.

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