In the current eMove360° magazine in german language – download here for free. explains designer Heike Hustedt how Volkswagen optimizes the ecological footprint of vehicle interiors. The goal: the circular economy
Designer Heike Hustedt has been with Volkswagen for 20 years. In the Color & Trim area, she selects materials and designs surfaces on and in the vehicle. Her focus: the development of sustainable materials for series production. In an interview, Heike Hustedt explains the development process and the series use of sustainable materials in the area of interior surfaces.
Ms. Hustedt, what are you mainly working on at the moment?
Heike Hustedt: Basically, the Color & Trim area deals with all materials for surfaces on and in the car. Everything the customer sees goes through our hands. We determine structures, colors or the surface quality: Is the surface soft, rough or firm. I am currently concentrating primarily on the purely electric ID. family that we want to make as sustainable as possible – and animal-free.
What is the basic procedure at Volkswagen to make a material more sustainable?
Hustedt: We have a lot of experience in materials science. That’s why we know the potential of our materials and where we can start. This usually happens in close cooperation with developers and suppliers. An example: Volkswagen has been using chrome-free leather for 25 years. Since 2019, we have been using leather in the Volkswagen Touareg in which a processed extract from olive tree cuttings is used as the tanning agent. Olive leaves are usually burned when the olives are harvested.
In this case, a supplier approached us early on and presented the tanning process to us. It convinced us immediately, because the so-called “wet-green” tanning is a very sustainable process. In addition, there are short transport routes: the leather comes from Europe, mainly from southern Germany. Tanned in Italy.
Why is this sustainable leather not used in the ID. family to use?
Hustedt: When it comes to electric vehicles, we would like to do without animal products as a matter of principle. According to this definition, materials such as Dinamica (Artvelours) come into focus. This is a microfiber fabric that feels like suede. It has a matt, rough surface and is very soft. In the ID. vehicles, we combine it with smooth imitation leather. This is how we create value and recognition across the entire ID. Family.
Faux leather based on mineral oil. What approaches are you pursuing here?
Hustedt: Imitation leather is in high demand in various markets, such as the USA. It is considered robust and easy to clean. That’s why Volkswagen has always offered artificial leather interiors in many markets. In addition, for customers who want to do without animal products, artificial leather is often the only alternative to leather.
So far, artificial leather has had disadvantages when it comes to sustainability, as it has a high proportion of mineral oil-based components. Our approach to a short-term improvement in the eco-balance of artificial leather is to increase the biological content. For example, with the so-called “coffee leather” that we are currently developing: the starting material already contains a proportion of bio-based substitutes. We further increase the proportion by replacing fillers with coffee silver skins, which are a waste product of coffee roasting. As a result, we have achieved a considerable proportion of biological materials of more than 50 percent. This is how we improve the environmental balance of artificial leather.
How does such a material development work?
Hustedt: In the area of interiors, we usually outline a development goal, after which Volkswagen Development approaches suppliers and requests test goods. On this basis, we purposefully develop an optimized material that is suitable for series production. This is the case with coffee leather: the raw material for a new type of artificial leather is supplied by the Heimbs coffee roasting company in Braunschweig. They are suitable for mass production and work closely with us.
As a global volume manufacturer, Volkswagen needs this large-scale production capability. It is not enough for a material to pass the necessary tests in the laboratory. It is just as important that our suppliers can produce in large series or are willing to develop in this direction together with Volkswagen – and thereby expand or change their offer.
What is the next big milestone in your work area?
Hustedt: It is very important to us that the proportion of recyclable materials is as high as possible. We are currently working on a special model of the ID. Family. In these vehicles, the headliner, fabrics, carpets, seats, door panels and decorative surfaces are made of sustainable material that consists of up to 100 percent recycled materials – such as PET bottles. This high proportion of recycled material in a series interior clearly sets us apart from the competition. This is also a flagship project within the Volkswagen Group. An example: The ID.4 contains 140 PET bottles of 1.5 liters each or 380 bottles of 0.5 liters each. Volkswagen is thus taking on a pioneering role and proving that our commitment to sustainability is taken seriously.
Please briefly explain the long-term perspective of material development.
Hustedt: We are pursuing different approaches. With items such as coffee leather, we exchange individual components, such as fillers, for so-called “nawaros”, i.e. renewable raw materials. In the long term, however, the path to sustainability leads above all through the circular economy. An important step on the way there is to reduce the number of components. We also reduce the number of components in parts or the number of material layers in the part. This also means changing processes. If we succeed in reducing the number of components by half or even a third, an important prerequisite for the circular economy will be met. The last important building block is to optimize the recycling processes. From the outset, we have to create materials in such a way that we can transfer them to a recycling process at the end of the vehicle’s life.
What are the challenges?
Hustedt: The biggest challenge is the design of the automobile. That’s where we designers come in. If we can build panels or doors from just one piece, that would be the way to go.
In the series, our chief designer Jozef Kabaň is already focusing on reducing the number of possible variants in favor of sustainability and value. We may also need to create understanding for this approach. Plastics in cars, for example, are often described in the media as being less valuable than other materials. But single-origin plastics that are easy to recycle aren’t a cost-cutting measure — they’re paving the way for us to move towards a circular economy. The less mixed material there is in the vehicle, the easier it is for us to reuse materials several times. From our point of view, this is the most sustainable way to produce an automobile.
Which materials are suitable for this?
Hustedt: Those that on the one hand last the life of the vehicle and are easily recyclable and on the other hand look good, feel great and are perceived by the customer as valuable. We have high hopes for PET and polypropylene. Both plastics can be recycled very well if they are kept clean. These goals do not only exist in the automotive industry, but also in the fashion industry, for example. Sneaker manufacturers already offer shoes that consist of only one, completely recyclable material. The shoe is produced in a 3D printer, partly knitted, partly welded – but it only consists of one material. After use, the customer can send it back and the shoe is completely put back into circulation. An automobile is a much more complex product with a much longer service life. But that’s the path we’ve taken.