Heinz uses the pulp of more than two million tons of tomatoes every year to make their iconic ketchup, soups and sauces – but what happens to the leftovers? Ford just announced that they have teamed up with the food giant to turn mostly tomato skins (but also leaves, stems and seeds) into a composite bioplastic for use in their vehicles. Although still in the feasibility stage, the project could reduce food waste and lower the embodied energy footprint of Ford’s vehicles, while reducing vehicle weight and improving fuel economy at the same time.
Ford has been experimenting with plastics made with natural fibers for years as part of an ongoing initiative to improve the sustainability of their vehicles. To date they have used everything from retired U.S. currency and blue jeans to wheat straw and mushrooms to manufacture ‘greener’ car parts such as storage bins. This latest initiative is particularly exciting because the automaker addresses multiple environmental problems at once, such as reducing the use of petroleum-based plastics, reducing energy consumption, and diverting food waste. “Both companies are committed to having the least impact on the environment and water use,” says bioplastics expert and lead researcher Dr. Ellen Lee.
The byproduct of Heinz sauce production would be mixed with polyproprylene and cooked at a lower than normal temperature so that the natural fibers are not degraded, Dr. Lee told Inhabitat in a phone interview. This not only means that less energy is required to manufacture the bioplastic, which will be comprised (by weight) of 20 percent tomato fiber, but because the tomato waste replaces talc material currently used, the bioplastic is also lighter. This reduces the weight of the storage bins, which in turn reduces the weight of the vehicle, and results in greater fuel economy. The material will also be recyclable, though Dr. Lee notes that because tomato fibers are embedded in the plastic, this will have to be taken into account when considering what the material will be recycled as. “But this is also true of other plastics,” she says.
Dr. Lee explains that she and her team are currently testing the feasibility of the tomato-based bioplastic, and that eventually, once this phase of the project is complete and the tomato-based bioplastic is deemed fit for production, another supplier will be tasked with producing the parts. Usually, as per company strategy, the bioplastic will be launched in one vehicle before it is implemented across the automaker’s full range. “We’re not trying to create a niche green vehicle,” says Dr. Lee, who adds that it’s unclear when we can expect to see this innovative product on the market, but that Ford is getting better at going from concept to launch in a shorter time frame. We can say that one of the company’s latest experiments using wheat straw fiber in car parts materialized in roughly two years, so perhaps we can hope for a similar timeline for their latest endeavor.
In response to our ebullient exclamation that so many exciting new developments are taking place, Dr. Lee said “it’s fun to see the wacky ideas that come our way through the woodwork – like this one – especially when they work!”