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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Biodegradable Seat Covers:
Lenzing on the Latest in Circular Auto Parts

Through a partnership with Swiss automaker Rinspeed, textile giant Lenzing is expanding into auto upholstery — and changing what it feels like to sit on wood.

Wood is one of our most versatile natural materials. We use it for everything from paper, packaging and furniture to houses — and wood-based textiles such as lyocell and modal are more sustainable than fossil fuel-based materials such as polyester. Lenzing, an industry leader in textiles, makes its own brand of lyocell, called Tencel™, which is commonly used in apparel and home textiles, for hygiene products such as baby wipes, and industrial products including netted packaging. Now, through a new partnership with Swiss automaker Rinspeed, Tencel is expanding into auto upholstery — and changing what it feels like to sit on wood.

According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, approximately 86 percent of a vehicle’s material content — including steel, aluminum, rubber, plastics, coolant, motor oil, batteries, etc — is already recycled, reused or used for energy recovery. Interior textile components such as car seat fabrics, carpets, safety belts and air bags only amount to roughly 30 kg, or 2 percent of the total weight of a car[1], but across the industry, that still adds up — which is why it’s worth exploring circular options for these materials, as well.

We caught up with Robert van de Kerkhof, Chief Commercial Officer at the Lenzing Group, to learn more about the benefits of biodegradable automotive fabrics.

Why were automotive fibers a compelling business opportunity for Lenzing?

Robert van de Kerkhof: Automotive interior fibers have been on our radar for some time, and as part of our vision to pioneer a new industry standard for sustainable fibers across the textile landscape, we believe them to be a natural extension of our brand.

We recognized the need for the automobile industry to become more environmentally conscious. Whilst we have seen exciting growth in electric vehicle technology from both startups and legacy manufacturers alike, which aim to reduce the industry’s carbon emissions, these vehicles’ interiors have yet to witness the same renaissance. LENZING Lyocell and Modal fibers will offer superior comfort, quality and reliability to consumers, and promise unparalleled sustainability for our automotive partners. Materials such as polyester, nylon and leather have already begun to fall out of favor with consumers, and manufacturers are now offering sustainable alternatives in some of their vehicles as a result.

In 2018, we launched LENZING™, our specialty brand of fibers which are specialized for smart industrial solutions. Made of wood, LENZING fibers are sustainably sourced, produced via eco-responsible production processes, and certified as compostable and biodegradable. A specialized offering, LENZING for Automotive Interiors develops upon our goal to foster ways to reduce environmental impact of the automotive industry with LENZING Lyocell and Modal fibers, which are enabled by REFIBRA™ technology — which integrates pre-consumer, upcycled cotton scraps with wood pulp sourced from renewable forests to produce virgin LENZING Lyocell fibers through closed-loop production processes — and Eco Color technology. Dope-dyed LENZING Modal fibers, enabled by Eco Color technology, features long-lasting color-fastness and can save up to 50 percent of energy and water, as well as 60 percent reduction in carbon footprint during dyeing process. With such offerings, we hope to set a benchmark for sustainable automotive interiors and encourage positive change across the industry.

The results of the Lenzing-Rinspeed collaboration, on display at the recent Geneva Motor Show | Image credit: Auto Design magazine

As customers across the board continue to demand more sustainable alternatives to various types of textiles commonly found in everyday life, we see environmentally friendly automotive interiors as a great growth opportunity in the coming years, and a powerful way to further reduce the automotive industry’s impact on the environment.

How did this collaboration with Rinspeed come about?

RvdK: Few automotive brands are as synonymous with forward-thinking concepts as Rinspeed, which envisions and encapsulates the industry’s future. Their 2018 Snap concept, for example, aimed to tackle tomorrow’s mobility problems in a sustainable way, thereby reimagining our relationship with the car. When Rinspeed were looking to enhance the environmental sustainability of the Snap’s little sister, the Microsnap, we welcomed the opportunity to work with such an iconic Swiss designer.

With sustainability as a core focus, the collaboration felt very organic. We both share a vision to revolutionize the automotive industry and are proud to have the resources available to provide innovative and sustainable solutions to reduce the industry’s environmental impact. Our commitment to the circular economy complemented Rinspeed’s devotion to an incredibly sustainable vehicle.

We also believe that environmental and social responsibility should never come at the price of comfort. LENZING’s Lyocell and Modal fibers that were provided for the Microsnap elevate the passenger experience with remarkable softness and moisture-management capabilities to support the body’s natural thermal regulation. We understand that automotive interiors must withstand increased levels of durability over other textile applications, and our fibers deliver on this. Durability will also mean less textile use in the long run.

As a company committed to safeguarding our planet’s resources for future generations, LENZING is always excited to work with brands who experiment with unique concepts, work to advance innovation, and decrease the industry’s burden on the environment. Manufacturers such as Rinspeed are setting the standard for the future car, and we are excited to see what is to come. We challenged one another for the better throughout the collaboration, and are both extremely proud of the outcome. We hope our partnership will raise awareness surrounding the adoption of botanic and biodegradable materials, and their benefits for both the industry and the customer.

What more can you tell us about the benefits of these materials?

RvdK: Automobile manufacturing is inherently complex. It involves thousands of parts, materials and chemical substances; to date, the industry is still struggling to define sustainability. Nonetheless, the majority of components in car manufacturing are not only sustainable, but also contribute to circularity of the industry. For instance, a large part could be recycled materials like underbody covers made of recycled rubber, body frames made of recycled aluminum and wheel liners made of recycled plastic bottles. [While] there are also bio-based sustainable materials like interior padding and sound insulation made of recycled cotton, car seat fabrics and carpets made of LENZING for Automotive Interiors fibers, and cushions and headrests made of soy-based polyurethane foam — but the ratio of bio-based or natural materials is still very low. Biodegradable in weeks, such botanic fibers enhance bio-based circularity in the automotive interiors segment, ensuring a greener automotive industry.

As automobile manufacturers and equipment manufacturers continue to lead the evolution of the automotive industry towards a greener future, it is important to not only think about circularity, but also usage of more biodegradable materials. We look forward to working closely with various industry players to contribute to the greening of the automotive industry in the long run.

[1]: Source: Textiles for Industrial Applications (2014) R. Senthil Kumar