Could salvaged airbags help shape the entire future of Volvo Cars? The Reincarnate project is finding a new use for the lifesaving fabric, with the potential to change the way the company operates – forever. Welcome to the circular economy.
Hopefully you’ve never seen an opened airbag. It’s a triumph of materials technology and packaging that helps to save lives. And yet much of this is discarded at the end of a car’s life. This got one entrepreneurial Volvo Cars employee thinking about uses for old airbags. Azra Moric, a senior innovation manager at Volvo Cars, suggested using airbag fabric for new products such as bags and clothing, which could be sold as part of the Volvo Car Lifestyle Collection.
Her idea, which encapsulates the concept of a circular economy, won her Volvo Cars’ Global Idea Generator competition. It’s now a project – called Reincarnate – with a potentially limitless life of its own, one that will not only help cement Volvo Cars’ reputation for sustainability but also infl uence the underlying philosophy of the company.
Finding a use for decommissioned airbags takes Volvo Cars another step towards a circular economy. For example, if an airbag was designed so its fabric can be reused, it gets a second life even before it’s made.
“It’s looking at the value of something rather than just the cost of things,” says Karin Andre, director of Corporate Innovation at Volvo Cars. “When this idea came up, we were looking at the circular economy and how it could work here. If it’s sustainable and financially productive, that makes it valuable in a completely different way.”
Reincarnate started as a collaboration between Volvo Cars, Swedish Upcycling (itself a partnership between Gothenburg’s Chalmers Industriteknik and design agency Boid) and Jönköpings Bildemontering, one of Sweden’s largest car dismantlers. They looked at how materials from scrapped cars could be used to make new products. Now Reincarnate has a fourth member: Houdini, with whom Volvo Cars already has a partnership, selling its clothing in the Volvo Car Lifestyle Collection. And if you want to know how to combine manufacturing with a circular economy, you speak to Houdini.
“In nature, everything ends up as a resource for something else. It never becomes waste”
Because sustainability isn’t just part of Houdini’s business, it is the business. It makes clothes from recycled material, sells used garments and rents new ones. Garments are designed to be repaired then, when they’ve reached the end of their life, the polyester they’re made from is used for new clothes. It even made a compostable garment. As CEO Eva Karlsson explains, everything can be reused. “The way we describe the circular economy is to compare it to how nature works, where everything ends up as a resource for something else,” she says. “It never becomes waste. There’s a second, third, fourth use for everything.”
This requires planning, especially when choosing materials. For instance, Houdini uses polyester because used polyester can be made into new polyester with no loss of quality, and can be used indefinitely. Apply this thinking to car manufacture and you create a product that is not only easier to recycle, but could also provide raw material for new products.
Volvo Cars uses recycled polyester in the new XC40, which features floor mats made from plastic bottles. But the complexity of a car and its manufacturing process means that creating a circular economy won’t happen overnight. The airbag represents a way of starting the process. There’s a ready supply, they’re easy to remove and they don’t require any treatment to make them usable.
And Volvo Cars is leading by example. It hopes to use material made from reused airbags at its Gothenburg HQ, which is undergoing a transformation that will create a more distinct Volvo identity for the offices. Kent Hassring, Volvo Cars’ facility manager, says it’s the perfect opportunity to combine branding with reused materials. “We could make furniture or maybe a bag, which would work well with the idea of a mobile office. In effect, your desk is constantly being ‘reused’. It means we can start to spread the philosophy throughout Volvo Cars.”
“It’s looking at the value of something, rather than just the cost of things”
This is just the short term. In the future a circular economy within Volvo Cars could create more parts for new vehicles from recycled material, influence the design of components so they can be reused, and help the company improve the quality of materials. This is one of the biggest advantages of reusing your own materials, says Eva Karlsson. “You have complete control over raw materials. You know where it’s been before and what it’s been used for. There’s traceability and transparency.”
And perhaps, most importantly, recycling will provide a crucial resource for materials as demand outstrips supply. “In textiles there’s huge growth in demand from Asia, but there may not be enough raw material to supply us all,” says Eva. “We need to start creating our resources from waste to make what we need. In the long run, this could be the solution to sustainability.”