Words like “sustainability” or “circular economy” may be easy to define… but they are extremely difficult to implement in ways which lead to a true win-win situation for all stakeholders. The difficulty is that today our products and supply chains are designed for efficiency and not necessarily for sustainability. The mobility industry is not intrinsically sustainable because it is driven by non-renewable energy resources, yet with the mass acceptance of electric vehicles we are slowly moving towards a slightly more sustainable future for mobility. Yet are we in the vicious cycle of curing one problem just to create another?
At Covestro, as a materials supplier, we are continuously challenging our status quo.This means continually exploring ways to enable and support all sectors in their efforts to be more sustainable and reduce their impact on the environment.
Going electric has finally led to innovation around last mile/first mile mobility solutions, but the sheer number of products being launched to address this critical need has created a lot of waste, where we see broken scooters/bikes littering walkways, taking away precious space and making our neighborhoods ugly.
Images like those seen above are unfortunately all too familiar to us and yet we also understand cities, consumers and policy makers don’t really know yet how to manage this “new challenge” or negative externality of last/first mile mobility solutions.
The next big potential negative externality from the electric revolution are battery packs – each EV has multiple battery packs and there will be a day (a few years from now) when these battery packs will reach the end of their use cycle – what will we do with these batteries? There are multiple ways to handle this situation like mechanical recycling, but the disassembly of these battery packs is difficult; this limits the options and more often than not, leads to sub-optimal ways of re-using these battery packs.
This is where design and materials come into the picture – product designers have long been designing products which are seamless, efficient to produce and use materials fit for “one time” use only. Recycling these products is labor-intensive, a chemical process challenge and a cost prohibitive exercise. Imagine a shift from seamless design to modular design, in which it is easy to either replace only the broken parts, or whereby the modularity of the products allows it to be disassembled and used a second or third time. This is not a new idea, but it still hasn’t fully matured for many reasons. However, with awareness at an all-time high and with the right material choices which allow multiple use cycles, this can actually be achieved at a scale which can be both economically sustainable and reduce environmental impact.
Also critical to sustainability solutions is the support of product supply chains, i.e., closing the loop in product lifecycles. Currently there is a distinct lack of infrastructure to retrieve products, sort them, break them down and then finally reuse them. And of course, let’s not forget the lack of motivation for consumers to recycle (which may be due to lack of infrastructure and convenience). Can materials aid the sorting process? Can the material be broken down more easily? This is where the right material choice will make sustainability not just a novelty idea, but a sustainable commercial solution in all respects.
Covestro produces engineering polymer materials and you will find our materials in many of your everyday products, e.g., car headlamps, railway applications or lidar sensors. With mobility areas as a major focus, we are continuously working with customers, designers and supply chain players on sustainability solutions. We are bringing our material expertise to the forefront to help designers and engineers break new ground. We recently hosted a workshop at CoMotion LA in November 2019 addressing exactly this topic, with attendees ranging from government, design communities, start-up communities and OEMS. At this workshop, everyone came together to develop ideas, pilots and projects. We all know that to find solutions that are sustainable for the environment and long-term business success we need to work with each other and to have all hands on deck.
Let’s rethink how material and design can drive solutions. Let’s reimagine modular design and material life cycles to support the mobility industry’s sustainability goals. Let’s mobilize the industry together!
By Varun Malpani, Program Manager, Covestro
Varun Malpani is leading the New Mobility efforts for Covestro in the North America region. With a background in Engineering and marketing, working for a polymers company and having lived in many countries across continents he has developed a unique perspective on how materials play an important role in driving adoption of new solutions in mobility across different cultures. He uses his network and knowhow to help companies make smarter material choices from the get go to avoid the expensive traps while scaling up mobility hardware solutions.