Ford & Heinz Team Up, Turn Tomatoes Into Car Parts — Really

So, this is pretty bizarre: Ford wants to build car parts out of tomatoes, and Heinz is lending them a hand. The two companies, odd corporate bedfellows if ever there were, announced the new partnership Tuesday, paving the way for potentially bold new advancements in car manufacturing technology. And considering they're uniting around an idea that's effectively a form of highly-advanced recycling — not exactly a hallmark of the automotive industry — it deserves some special attention.

Specifically, they're are trying to find out if the things left behind from Heinz's multi-billion dollar ketchup empire, which rips through a good two-million tomatoes per year, can be harnessed and repurposed to make parts for Ford cars. Heinz's process of making ketchup doesn't use up all of the tomato, leaving remnants like seeds, skins and peels to be disposed of.

Rather than dumping that excess biowaste, their hope is to turn those remnants into a 100 percent plant-based plastic, a feat which could have big applications beyond just those two companies. That's probably why other titans of industry have hatched similar plans before — Heinz themselves made a deal with Coca-Cola in 2011, to use the company's partially sugar cane-based plastic in their ketchup bottles.

Ellen Lee, plastics research technical specialist with Ford, as quoted by the Pittsburg Post-Gazette:

We are exploring whether this food-processing byproduct makes sense for an automotive application. Our goal is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact.

On Heinz's side, spokesman Michael Mullen released a statement hailing the new partnership:

In our mutual search for ways to develop 100 percent plant-based plastics for everything from packaging to fabrics, scientists at Heinz and Ford Motor Co. are exploring the use of tomato skins to make more sustainable automotive components. The technology looks promising. At Heinz, we know tomatoes are good for people; now Ford will see if tomatoes can make its vehicles even more environmentally friendly.
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It's easy to be taken by a sense of cynicism about this kind of thing — do Heinz, or Ford, or most major companies for that matter really care as much about "environmental impact" as they do "application?" But it's nonetheless a rare and opportune thing, when the interests of corporate America line up even narrowly with sustainability and environmental-minded research.

Lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, however, the extent to which a nee plant plastic would replace other, more environmentally caustic products in a car or truck isn't yet entirely clear. How far the applications could ultimately go depends first on how successfully the relevant engineers can whip some old tomato skins into a manufacturing-grade polymer. Suffice it to say, we're holding out high hopes.