Ford, Heinz Motivated To Turn Tomatoes Into Auto Parts

Ford, Heinz Motivated To Turn Tomatoes Into Auto Parts

Researchers at Ford Motor Co. and H.J. Heinz Co. are investigating the use of tomato fibers in developing sustainable, composite materials for use in vehicle manufacturing. Specifically, dried tomato skins could become the wiring brackets in a Ford vehicle or the storage bin a Ford customer uses to hold coins and other small objects.
“We are exploring whether this food processing byproduct makes sense for an automotive application,” said Ellen Lee, plastics research technical specialist for Ford. “Our goal is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact.”

Nearly two years ago, Ford began collaborating with Heinz, The Coca-Cola Co., Nike Inc., and Procter & Gamble to accelerate development of a 100% plant-based plastic to be used to make everything from fabric to packaging and with a lower environmental impact than petroleum-based packaging materials currently in use.

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Image courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

Image courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

At Heinz, researchers were looking for innovative ways to recycle and repurpose peels, stems and seeds from the more than two million tons of tomatoes the company uses annually to produce its best-selling product: Heinz Ketchup. Leaders at Heinz turned to Ford.
“We are delighted that the technology has been validated,” said Vidhu Nagpal, associate director, packaging R&D for Heinz. “Although we are in the very early stages of research, and many questions remain, we are excited about the possibilities this could produce for both Heinz and Ford, and the advancement of sustainable 100% plant-based plastics.”

Ford’s commitment to reduce, reuse, and recycle is part of the company’s global sustainability strategy to lessen its environmental footprint while accelerating development of fuel-efficient vehicle technology worldwide. In recent years, Ford has increased its use of recycled nonmetal and bio-based materials. With cellulose fiber-reinforced console components and rice hull-filled electrical cowl brackets introduced in the last year, Ford’s bio-based portfolio now includes eight materials in production. Other examples are coconut-based composite materials, recycled cotton material for carpeting and seat fabrics, and soy foam seat cushions and head restraints.

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Heidi says:

Would it not be optimum to return the peels, stems & seeds to the soil as compost to build and sustain the soil microbiome in preparation for then next crop to be grown on that soil? It appears that Heintz isn’t looking to build soil, but to build sales and profits for it’s quarterly results call… Compost doesn’t create short term sales results… It creates long term soil health. What’s the environmental impact of removing the crop of tomatoes from the field without leaving the farmer something to return to the field to build the soil for the next crop? Does no one in corporate America have children or grandchildren?

James says:

Heidi: No, it would not be optimum to return the peels, stems, and seeds to the soil as compost. There are several flaws in this approach. First, the cost of trucking the peels, stems, and seeds back to the assorted farm fields is prohibitive, and one would question the carbon footprint of the trucks/fuel used to do so. Another concern is that there would be no way to separate and distinguish which peels, stem, and seeds came from which farm. Thus, you would be introducing foreign plant material into your soil, and this could introduce bacteria or viruses that would then require additional chemicals to control. While composting the material generally could mitigate the bacteria/virus concern if the compost achieves optimum temperature, you still have the issue of the seeds. As you probably know from seeing tomatoes sprout out of your own compost barrel, tomato seeds do not break down easily. These returned seeds would germinate as weeds in the field, and affect the carefully controlled balance of plant spacing and density. Additionally, since nearly all commercially grown tomatoes are hybrids, and the seeds from hybrids would potentially germinate as a parent variety, not the desired variety, you would then have a stand of tomatoes of mixed sizes, maturity, and disease resistance.
Also, keep in mind, when tomatoes are harvested, the entire plant and roots are left in the field. From a weight (dry volume) perspective, the amount of biomass that would be added to the field by bringing back peels, stems, and seeds is miniscule compared to the biomass that is natural left in the field from the plant itself. However, in situations where crop rotation is not feasible, many farmers do remove the dry plant matter from the field (because viruses can overwinter on this material). Often simply planting a winter rye or other cover crop is far more viable way of increasing the soil structure and fertility, as opposed to leaving (or importing) crop residue.
Heinz and Ford are embracing sustainable practices, particular the “recycle” and reuse” components. While there may be other reasons to chastise corporate America, your critique is off-base in this circumstance. You should be happy that material which was previously going to a landfill is now being given a beneficial re-use. Thus, it’s not filling up a landfill, and it is preventing us from having to drill for additional petroleum to manufacture car plastics. This is a win for the consumer, the company, and the environment. At times it is possible for all three to benefit from American ingenuity.