Ford, Heinz playing environmental catch-up using tomatoes in vehicle parts

It sounds like something out of a cartoon.

A tomato car.

But H.J. Heinz Company and Ford Motor Company, in fact, are taking the idea semi-seriously. Semi because they’re actually talking about components and not whole cars – yet.

It might seem that tomatoes and cars have nothing in common, according to the announcement of the collaboration. But researchers at Ford and Heinz are investigating the use of tomato fibers in developing sustainable, composite materials or bio-plastic for use in vehicle manufacturing.

“You say tomato, I say tom-auto,” said the headline on a press release.

“We are exploring whether this food processing byproduct makes sense for an automotive application,” said Ellen Lee, plastics research specialist at Ford. “Our goal is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while reducing our overall environmental impact.”

The byproduct is dried tomato skins, which could become the wiring brackets in Ford vehicles or the storage bin a driver might use to hold coins and other small objects.

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

Meanwhile, Heinz researchers were looking for ways to recycle and repurpose peels, stems and seeds from more than two million tons of tomatoes the company uses annually to produce its best-selling product, Heinz Ketchup. And that’s when Heinz turned to Ford.

“We are delighted that the technology has been validated,” said Vidhu Nagpal, associate director of packaging R&D at 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 percent plant-based plastics.”

Ford already is using eight plant-based materials in production, including cellulose fiber-reinforced console components, rice hull-filled electrical cowl brackets, coconut-based composite materials, recycled cotton material for carpeting and seat fabrics, and soy foam seat cushions and head restraints.

Next thing you know, we’ll have zucchini seat belts and air bags.

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