DETROIT – Terms such as bamboo, seaweed cellulose yarn and bio-based polyester are becoming more mainstream in automotive design lingo today, in an industry effort to make vehicle interiors more eco-friendly.

The use of these and other natural materials, such as corn, soybeans, rice hulls and coconut fibers, along with recycling materials, is enabling interior designers to lessen a vehicle’s impact on the environment, a panel of experts says at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here.

“In the 1980s, it was about reducing, preventing and minimizing,” says Dan Hendon, Johnson Controls Inc. director-new product strategy and innovation. “In the 1990s, it was about being a little more efficient and smarter and making a higher-quality product.

“But as we move forward, we want to be responsible for the future. We’ve come to realize we can’t continue to create the same impact on our environment as we have in the past. And that’s going to take a shift to integrate economic, ecological and social issues in a more substantial way.

“Consumers are changing their behavior, and tremendous change is going to come fast in the automotive industry,” Hendon adds, noting many of JCI’s products use coconut fibers, latex, recycled-cotton fibers and soy-based foam.

Lear Corp. also has been replacing its petroleum-based foam in vehicle seat cushions, seatbacks, arm-and-head rests with soy-based polyurethane foam, says Ashford Galbreath, director-advanced materials and comfort engineering’s seat systems division.

The problem is some of the natural materials that interior designers want to use aren’t always feasible from an engineering perspective due to costs, says Teresa Spafford, lead designer for Mazda North American Operations.

Spafford, who considers herself an environmentalist, is credited with creating the first vinyl-free interior found on the Mazda Tribute Grand Touring model.

Environmentally friendly materials in concept vehicles is one way to help move the market, she says. “The Kabura, Nagare and Furai, three Mazda concept vehicles, were used as test-beds for eco-friendly materials, such as bio-resins, recycled silicone and remanufactured leathers.

“If you look at most concept cars, they use a lot of leather,” Spafford says. “It’s easy to make in any color, so we said we were going to try and make (the Kabura concept’s) interior with 100% recycled, re-manufactured leather, to cover all the surfaces. It didn’t hold together, but we could use it in certain areas.”

In addition, the material used for the Kabura cargo area was made from recycled silicone.

“It was absolutely brilliant to work with,” Spafford says. “We could make really fine cuts and sharp edges, and it was moldable. We could do pretty much anything we wanted to do with it. We ended up using it for the floor in the whole cargo area, and it was a huge success.”

There are numerous applications in the vehicle designers can play with, agrees Debbie Mielewski, technical leader-plastics research materials and nanotechnology for Ford Motor Co. research and advanced engineering.

“It’s a huge scope,” she says. “We have over 30 different materials that form different functions within the vehicle. There’s everything from sensors to fascias to interior plastics for safety.”

Gaining traction the last several years is PLA, which is a polylactic acid, also known as polylactide polymer. The material basically is plastic created from plants, rather than petroleum.

Mielewski says before she retires – she’s been at Ford for 21 years – plastics should be 100% renewable. “And I can feel good about not putting things in a landfill for 1,000 years.

“PLA is plastic derived from any high sugar-content material, such as corn, sugarcane or sugar beets. One of the great things about PLA is it’s a really flexible polymer.”

Some coffee cups are made from PLA, as well as packaging and water bottles. Some apparel, bedding and upholstery also are made of PLA.

“The big question is if (PLA) is ever going to be durable enough for automotive use,” Mielewski says. “We believe you have to have material choices. You can’t rely on the petroleum products that you produce for 50 or 60 years. It’s just not going to be possible in the future.

“We are going to make as many trim choices for as many trim parts for one vehicle as we possibly can,” she adds. “That will allow for a lot of flexibility in the future.”

dstark@wardsauto.com