Sustainable materials: consider the end from the start

6 min reading time
BMW interior designs now use more and more sustainable materials. Head of Sustainability BMW Group Design Daniela Bohlinger met with Aquafil CEO Giulio Bonazzi in Ljubljana, where ECONYL® yarns are produced out of recycled fishing nets and other nylon waste.

21 January 2021

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The fishing nets that Giulio Bonazzi stretches out across the large table in his conference room are so clean you might think they’re brand new. “We clean the nets using a multi-step process and add them to other nylon waste at our chemical factory, where they are broken down into their chemical components,” explains the CEO of the Italian yarn making company Aquafil. The end result is pure ECONYL® nylon granules, which have the exact same composition as regular, petroleum-based nylon. Once the products made from ECONYL® reach the end their useful life, they can also be recycled once again and made into other new products. “You can keep recycling these products as many times as you want,” says Bonazzi. “This is true sustainability.”

Starting with sustainable materials

BMW uses ECONYL® yarns to make its headliners and floor mats for the BMW i3, BMW iX and other models. Daniela Bohlinger, Head of Sustainability BMW Group Design, sees this as a logical consequence of the growing environmental awareness at BMW. “It is important to us to use recycled materials as the basis for these products. ECONYL® nylon, which is made from old fishing nets and other nylon waste, is a good fit for our needs. Since it features a wonderful range of colors, it is easy for us to design with. Of course any product that is made from recycled materials must look flawless and provide outstanding quality.”

According to Giulio Bonazzi, however, companies are still hesitant to use recycled materials, particularly luxury brands. But this is slowly changing. Besides BMW, Prada and Gucci both now use Aquafil ECONYL® nylon for their collections. Compared to petroleum-based nylons, manufacturing nylon from recycled materials produces 90 percent less CO2.

From fishing nets to sustainable yarns

Some of the old fishing nets have been recovered from the ocean, which Bonazzi says is the most “emotionalizing” aspect. “This is the main goal of The Healthy Seas, an NGO that Aquafil and two other partners set up in 2013 in order to promote awareness of the problem of abandoned fishing nets polluting the oceans.” But the majority of nets that Aquafil recycles come from fish farms around the world. Aquafil collects the raw materials in two 15,000 square meter storehouses in Ljubljana, where they are cleaned and laced onto pallets. Other nylon waste such as old carpets, fabric remnants and plastic parts are also stored here. Then it is all taken to the chemical factory, where it is used to create brand-new ECONYL® nylon for use in eco-friendly products to promote environmental sustainability.

Giulio Bonazzi – CEO Aquafil

The factory’s recycling process is a complicated one. The complex system of tanks and pipes that criss-cross the factory serves to separate and recombine the chemical components. The process starts off with the treatment of the nylon waste. The fishing nets, for example, are ground up into little pieces and sent along a conveyer belt to a large tank. By the time they reach the next station one floor up, they have become snow-white plastic granules flowing through the silver pipes. Finally the granules are sent to spinneret plates where they are spun into endlessly long and flat threads and wound onto industrial-sized spools. In another area of the factory, huge white, black, red and blue spools of yarn are loaded onto carts.

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THE iX
CO2 emissions 0 g/km (combined)
Fuel consumption 0 l/100 km (combined)
Power consumption 21 kWh/100 km (combined)

As a pioneer of this recycling technology, Bonazzi operates the only factory in the world that produces ECONYL® nylon yarn from waste. His products can be infinitely recycled without even the slightest compromise in quality. “We are basically moving in this direction in the automotive industry as well,” says Bohlinger. “From the very start we consider the entire product lifecycle and increasingly use materials that can be recycled and then used for other purposes.”

Investing in emission-free drive systems and using sustainable materials in an environmentally friendly way will help to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. “Our CEO Oliver Zipse has clearly demonstrated his commitment to these goals,” emphasizes Bohlinger. “We are developing a clear strategy in order to reach this ambitious target by 2030.”

Bonazzi knows what it means to try and implement these types of changes in an industry. “If I had known how difficult it all was going to be, I would never have done it,” says the entrepreneur, who laughingly calls himself a “crazy guy.” During a tour of the factory, he tells Bohlinger about the type of problems he’s had to deal with. “When we recycle fishing nets, we have to remove the copper oxide coating that is used to protect the nets from algae growth. Copper oxide is not a nylon. It causes a great deal of problems for the chemical process. It’s only in the last few years that we have been able to remove the copper oxide from fish farm nets by using specially developed processes. Another challenge is transportation. As soon as a fish farm net is no longer useable, it’s considered to be hazardous waste. Transporting waste is generally very problematic.”

For someone who actively wants to help remove harmful materials from the environment, it is difficult to understand why scrap materials cannot be imported into a country for recycling. But in the end Bonazzi says he was able to convince the government agencies. And now the nets with their copper coating are lying here on the factory floor, ready for a second, and more environmentally friendly, life – perhaps as a turquoise bathing suit, a white designer chair or even a sleek black floor mat in a BMW.

Photos: BMW, Yannick Wolff; Author: Christiane Winter