Heinz Ketchup and Ford Motor Company have formed an unlikely partnership to research the uses of tomato fiber in automotive plastic, the companies announced this week. The research into how dried tomato skins could be used in vehicles is part of Ford’s effort to enhance fuel economy by lightening its vehicles.
The material could be used in parts such as wiring brackets or storage bins. Ford's Team Leader in Plastic Research, Ellen C. Lee, told VICE News that while the company is still in the research phase and not ready for vehicle testing, the outlook for use looks good.
“We are optimistic about its use because of the potential for weight reduction, cycle-time reduction, process-energy reduction, and other cost reductions. All of these benefit in our other applications of biomaterials in other Ford Motor Company production vehicles,” she said.
The project came out of a 2012 collaboration between Heinz, Ford, Coca-Cola, and Procter & Gamble to design plant-based plastics and fibers. These companies, as well as Nestle, Danon, Nike, and Unilever, formed the Bio plastics Feedstock Alliance (BFA) with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2013. Heinz and Ford are also members of the Plant PET Technology Collaborative, “a strategic working group focused on accelerating the development and use of 100 percent plant-based PET materials and fiber in their products,” according to the group’s website.
Erin Simon, Manager for PSE for Packaging and Material Science at WWF US, and leader of the BFA, told VICE News that the BFA is committed to using the idea of using informed science and critical thinking to help guide the responsible selection of feedstocks [for use in] bio-waste plastics. A feedstock is any grown biomass or crop that is used to produce a polymer and a monomer, or used to produce the basic building block for plastic.
“We want to continuously monitor their development against our expectations for improvement, and then help draw positive change to scale,” Simon said.
Ford has also developed other plant-based materials, such as cellulose fiber-reinforced console components and rice hull-filled electrical cowl brackets. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, they are also developing coconut-based and recycled cotton materials.
Research into plant-based plastics, or bio-plastics, has gained steam in the past few years, as it’s been seen as a way to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions in the manufacturing process. Harvard University’s Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering recently announced their development of shrimp shell plastic, and researchers in Brazil and the UK have designed banana and pineapple-based plastics.
However, most bio-plastics cannot be recycled or thrown away, and must be composted — something most consumers still don’t do. As reported in a 2010 TIME Magazine piece, some bio-plastics can actually release greenhouse gases when left to anaerobically compose in a landfill, and other bio-plastics aren’t compostable at all, rendering the materials less green than hoped.
On the question of compostability and manufacturing of the tomato byproduct-based plastics, Lee said, “It’s too early in the process to give an accurate assessment of how much energy will be required to manufacturer the particular application or speak to the compostability of this material itself.”
However, Lee said that “about 85 percent of the materials used on Ford vehicles by weight are recyclable, and approximately 95 percent of all total vehicles retired from use each year are processed for recycling.”
Simon said that Heinz and Ford are aware of the issues around certain bio-plastics, and that they are taking a “holistic view.”
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