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How SIMONA is embracing sustainability at every rung of its business

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Green Wing logo with white letters against a green backdrop, and leafs on either sideAs a stock-listed company with headquarters in Kirn, Germany, thermoplastics specialist SIMONA AG adheres to European Union law, including the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) that requires firms to report on the impact of their corporate activities on the environment and society.

But while SIMONA’s production sites around the world — including SIMONA America Group — must operate under what is objectively a far stricter sustainability reporting regime than some of its rivals, the company sees its green positioning as being competitively advantageous, in addition to being the right thing to do.

“It is an advantage, in my opinion, to really become a front runner in the US,” SIMONA Group head of M&A and sustainability Johannes Kappler told RGN in June at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, where SIMONA America Group unit SIMONA Boltaron each year showcases thermoplastic products that are commonly used on aircraft seatbacks, premium class suite furniture, and other cabin interiors.

The CSRD took effect on 5 January 2023. But even before this directive came into play, SIMONA took the time to both “rethink what we are going to do, and what we are doing with regards to sustainability”, explained Kappler. “It’s not that we have done nothing in the past, but what we had to find was the more structured way to, as a global company, define what sustainability means for us, and what we need to work on.”

Building a sustainability platform

One major aspect of SIMONA’s sustainability platform he said, is to focus on circularity — i.e. responsibly managing all resources used, from the raw materials to eco-design, manufacturing, the operational phase, and end of use.

“In terms of assessing circularity, there are methodologies that give you the answer on how relevant your energy mix is, and what your carbon footprint is. And it tells you how important is the material that you are using, how important is the fact that you are using recycled material. So, there are, I think, very clear methodologies that we can use and that we should use,” said Kappler.

From an end of use perspective, there is not a good mechanism at present to really destruct a post-service aircraft seatback and recycle it for reuse in aviation, though this type of ‘closed-loop recycling’ is something that industry is working on. But even if that material can’t be looped back into SIMONA Boltaron’s aviation-grade thermoplastics because of adhesives or whatever else may be contaminating it, the material can in some instances be used for construction materials or other up-cycled items such as personal electronic device holders or vending machine chutes so that it doesn’t just go to landfill.

Parent SIMONA also considers “the social aspects, for example, and the government aspects” of CSRD, noted Kappler:

And in the end, to work on reducing our carbon footprint because that’s probably the major driver now for us. And, as part of society, it’s something that we need to do to be sustainable in the most prominent way, if you will.

To wit, SIMONA has empowered some of its employees to be exclusively responsible for sustainability. In addition to Kappler’s role, the company has added Kristina Schloeder to its sustainability team, as well as an additional appointee in the US to help with its overall sustainability platform. It has also anchored the responsibility for sustainability in the CEO. “This is also, in my opinion, a very important one to really underline the importance for us as a company and across our employees,” said Kappler

Moreover, he said, SIMONA has “developed a plan to become a climate neutral company by the year 2050 globally and for our German operations, by 2045. We have developed tools to, for example, calculate our carbon footprint also with regards to the product. So, we are working with dedicated software that is helping us in this regard. We really try to do it in an automated way to also be able to scale it up. We want to increase automation as much as possible. We are taking this very seriously.”

Offering recycled grade thermoplastics to aviation

At SIMONA Boltaron’s stand at AIX, management’s message to airlines was sustainability focused, both in terms of what parent SIMONA is doing globally to foster such, as well as how it can supply “recycled grade materials” from its Terreform product line for aircraft interiors.

“[W]hat we thought was really important this year is not just to talk about what Boltaron makes, but what SIMONA globally is doing as far as sustainability goes,” SIMONA America Group CEO Adam Mellen told RGN. “That is something that’s done by what we call a balanced scorecard. It’s how I’m measured as a SIMONA America Group CEO. It’s how my boss is measured as CEO, that we’re taking these steps in the business. So, I would say that we still have a long way to go. But if this year we have a department of 2.5 people, I’d like to think next year we’ll have a department of maybe five people, and we will continue to go in that direction.”

SIMONA Boltaron currently offers two grades of its Terreform product: a Paragraph A material and Paragraph D (meeting flame, smoke and heat release regulatory requirements). To be clear, Terreform is made from recycled scrap from various Boltaron materials, both aerospace and non-aerospace grade (not from thermoplastics that have already been used in aircraft interiors).

“Initially we rolled it out with one color, one texture, but we’ve expanded upon that, and are now offering an additional five colors,” SIMONA America Group VP of sales and distribution strategy Alicia Spence explained. “One of the things we do with Terreform, a recycled product, is work with the seat OEMs and airlines to ensure they understand that recycled material, sustainability, has some compromise. You’re not going to have perfection with aesthetics. You’re going to have similar physical properties, but the quality spec might have to be loosened a bit when it comes to aesthetics. We’re not going to have perfection as you would with a virgin material and so you might have some black specs or inclusions in the material.”

Italian seatmaker Optimares, which is also doubling down on sustainability, has incorporated Terreform into its new all-mechanical SoFab business class seat, including on the table, headset faring, electrical box and wireless charger.

Pictured: the SoFab seat from Aviointeriors with SIMONA Boltaron's Terreform recycled thermoplastics used, including on the wireless charging pad

Terreform, in grey, can be seen on the SoFab seat’s wireless charging surface. Image: John Walton

In the normal course of SIMONA Boltaron’s operations, the surface tolerances for thermoplastics are so tight that something that could be rejected actually needs to be remade. With the Terreform product, it doesn’t have to do that.

“Material Honesty is a term we use to describe what you might see in a recycled product [in terms of small inclusions]. Those are part of the surface finish. But that’s the compromise you’re making, like Alicia said. And that’s just an example. We’d like to help the end user, the customer themselves, as well as the airlines, understand the amount of waste and scrap that’s generated to get to the perfection that you see,” Mellen stated.

“When you walk around the show, you see all these beautiful seats and you won’t find any imperfections. And that’s the kind of thing that maybe we need to start to show people — what is acceptable? But I would ask you the same question. You must get this compromise comment a lot because in other words, to be sustainable, you have to give up something else. And we haven’t found yet that the customers want to give it up as much as they want to talk about giving up. So, what do you do about that?”


A standard insignia for recycled thermoplastics in aviation?

Mellen reckons that the average passenger likely won’t notice inclusions in Terreform-based aircraft interiors. “I’ve always thought about this as a customer myself. I’ve flown almost 2,000,000 miles and I don’t think I’ve ever once looked at a seatback, tray table, window shade or an armrest and seen a minor inclusion that would otherwise get rejected and be bothered by it,” he said.

“So, when I think about the passengers themselves, I’m not sure if they’re as concerned about those minor imperfections. And in fact, they might appreciate it if they understood it. Now if it’s a big scratch or stain or something, that’s different. But if it’s just a little spec, I’m not sure they really mind, perhaps especially if they knew that, to accept that little spec, meant that maybe we didn’t throw away several hundred pounds of plastics to get there.”

For the eagle-eyed amongst us, a small insignia saying effectively, ‘this is recycled material’ could perhaps provide a feel good moment for those passengers, and a willingness to overlook that little spec.

“I don’t think we have an insignia that’s universal,” noted Mellen. “I know they talked about that at RedCabin,” a summit that brings industry stakeholders together. “They talked about it years ago, and asked: what is the standard? I think that’s the kind of thing that we all need to talk about it.”

Elsewhere, however, SIMONA Boltaron is already working with its competitors to get on the same page collectively. “There is now the Green Cabin Alliance that just started and we are participating in that. And I think that those discussions are probably going to lead more in that direction. And that is nice because there’s a cross between European companies, American companies, and Asian companies, and we all have different standards and different regulations and you know, it’s different in America. Why it’s slower in America is both because we don’t have the same regulation and we have different opinions on this subject,” the SIMONA America Group CEO explained.

“So, I’m not sure how you communicate this message to the passenger if you will. But what we are trying to do is, as Johannes said, lead by example and say, ‘we believe that Europe is ahead and so we’re going to follow some of the standards here that are most likely coming in five years.’ We don’t know exactly how far down the road they’ll be implemented in the US. And then, as more smart people get into this conversation, the more we start to figure out how to design the parts in mind so that we’re thinking about the long-term cycle of how to destruct it later on and bring it back and do something with it.

“We have got to get a lot more energy around the subject matter to really let the subject matter experts figure out the engineering on this.”

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Featured image credited to Boltaron