You could say that, at least until now, cars and tomatoes have basically nothing in common. Tomatoes go from green to red as they ripen, and cars, well, they seem to be getting greener. As part of this trend, Ford is one of several companies that have been pursuing a viable bio-based plastic that could substitute for the petroleum-based plastics that dominate the industry today. Indeed, as cars continue to reduce vehicle weight in order to improve fuel economy, the use of plastics is becoming ever more common.
Ford formed a collaboration two years ago with Heinz, Nike, Coca-Cola, Procter and Gamble and others, along with the World Wildlife Fund, in the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance. Their stated goal was to develop a 100 percent plant-based PET, a common type of plastic used in soft drink and water bottles.
The intent, from Ford’s perspective, has been “is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact.” So says Ellen Lee, a Ford plastics research technical specialist.
Now they have apparently hit pay dirt. In what appears to be a marriage made in heaven, Heinz was looking for an innovative way to recycle and repurpose peels, stems and seeds from the more than 2 million tons of tomatoes the company uses annually to produce its best-selling ketchup.
Says Vidhu Nagpal, associate director of packaging R&D for Heinz: “We are delighted that the technology has been validated. 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.”
Plant-based plastics still have many of the same environmental issue as oil-based plastics, as both Pepsi and Coca-Cola learned when they announced the use of plant-based PET in their bottles. That is to say, they are not biodegradable, they cause litter, and they can leach chemicals into the soil and water. All of these impacts can be minimized in a closed-loop recycling environment, though some bottles always escape. Still, the substitution of plant-based feedstock is definitely a significant improvement, since it has a lower carbon footprint and reduces the demand for fossil fuels. According to the Energy Information Administration, 190 million barrels of oil were used in 2010 to make feedstocks for plastic. That represents close to 3 percent of the country’s oil consumption.
The announcement with Heinz is just one more step in Ford’s journey to incorporate more sustainably produced materials in their vehicles. Their bio-based portfolio now includes eight materials in production, including: coconut-based composite materials, recycled cotton material for carpeting and seat fabrics, and soy foam seat cushions and head restraints. Other efforts to find lightweight, natural materials have included investigations into the use of feathers in a composite structural material. The company also includes a considerable amount of recycled materials in their products.
We’ve long known that tomatoes can be good for you, but now it appears that they could be good for the environment as well.
Image credit: Andrew Seaman: Flickr Creative Commons
RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.
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