My oldest boy is 8 now. So I guess some time in 2012 I walked down an aisle of a shop in Stockholm looking to purchase a car seat. I don’t remember the moment exactly (probably from sleep deprivation). But I can tell you one very clear expectation. If in the future I was ever driving down a country road and a deer ran in front of the car, if I struck the deer, smashed up the car, flew against my seatbelt and airbag, I would expect the car seat to prevent my son from injury. And as a business person working with materials today, I like to think that I expected those things from the polypropylene, which likely shaped many of the seat’s structural elements. I like to think of that moment in 2012 because it’s about the same time that I realized consumer expectations of the car seat – of the polypropylene – were poised to change radically.
The safety expectations of parents for their baby seats have grown since the advent of automobiles in the 20th century. As proof, we now have standards and laws that require their use and control their manufacture. But you can describe other, newer expectations too. In 2012 I would have expected that the car seat not have BPAs or any harmful additives thinking about my son’s physiological health. An engineer, or a designer, or a materials specialist behind the baby seat may or may not acknowledge those expectations, but they certainly deal with them. And polypropylene is currently able to meet current expectations. And besides delivering sufficient crash-impact properties, it’s easy to use, light, and plentiful.
My boys are big enough now that they don’t require a car seat, but if I were buying one today I would want brand new things of that polypropylene. I would want it not to depend on fossil fuels, to be produced close to home, to be recycled as efficiently as possible after use, and to be discarded in the least impactful way. Perhaps most acutely I wouldn’t want the making of the car seat to add to a warming planet. What a wish list! Can a plastic possibly do those things while making it safe to drive a child to the zoo, the pool, football, Grandma’s, or Oslo? Yes, of course. Could an eco-minded parent in 2020 find such a car seat in the shop aisle in Stockholm? Not by a long shot. Those can’t be my expectations yet, but they will become so.
It is a mountain to climb for manufacturers to address the long wish lists of eco-minded consumers whose desires will one day (soon, hopefully) become expectations. And what’s even tougher in the near future is keeping “plastic,” which is now a dirty word, from becoming an unutterable slur. But we won’t start making car seats out of wood, clay, or metal. Experts understand that the ideal car seat is still made with something the consumer calls “plastic” just made, used, recycled, and discarded in a different way. Technologies to produce the car seat that parents want already exist. But the practices, markets, and infrastructure to get it into shops do not.
In the early 2010s, not long after my son was born, I started to see how the complexity of this transition would require material innovation that began to address these consumer desires while always still meeting their existing quality expectations. Products are not made “sustainable” overnight with a magic wand, and smart consumers know that. The main seed of this insight was the technology behind Trifilon BioLite – my company’s first product – which satisfied the mechanical requirements of mineral and glass-fiber-reinforced plastics with a much more environmentally-friendly reinforcement – hemp. “How eco is a little hemp?” was the question often encountered at the start. Each product carries a different set of quality-expectations that weigh heavily on material selection. I’ve realized how important it is to have expertise that can meet those demands while addressing the various sustainability wishes of the consumer. It has also become clearer to me how important it is to acknowledge the steps (“30% less carbon,” “from recycled plastics,” or “with a renewable ingredient”) towards the end-goal (“carbon neutral,” “circular manufacturing,” or “from renewable resources”). Carbon – and its artful structuring in polymers – is not the enemy to borrow an edifying idea from Michael Carus of the Nova Institute who champions “renewable carbon.” We want to protect children in private transportation vehicles, and there is an optimal, sustainable way to do it that doesn’t have roots in oil drilling or coal mining.
In our experience the difference makers when it comes to innovation in plastics are the engineers, designers, and brand owners who are motivated as individuals to make positive change. They are themselves caring parents, neighbors, and citizens. But brand owners should consider that beginning to work with these consumer expectations now also anticipates more compelling regulation in the future, just like with safety standards for baby seats. Hopefully, it won’t be long before progressive countries begin announcing minimum CO2-reduction standards or, perhaps, recycled-content minimums.
The job of making plastics in manufacturing more sustainable is large and complex. And grappling with its issues and finding solutions has offered our company, Trifilon, its business model. Our challenge is to find materials that meet the old expectations of consumers and begin to meet the new ones. I want to help one forward-thinking company make the car seat parents want.