PITTSBURGH — In testing whether tomato peels, stems, and seeds would work as part of a material that could be used inside Ford vehicles, Ellen Lee’s work space smelled like a restaurant.
“When we were processing this, all I could think of was pizza,” said the plastics research technical specialist for the Dearborn, Mich., automaker.
Ford Motor Co. on Tuesday announced that tomato waste — something Pittsburgh ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co. produces in abundance — eventually could be used in a future Fusion or perhaps an F-150. The tomato fibers might end up in plastic used in wiring brackets or small storage bins.
As such, the ketchup byproduct could help save on fuel use because the plastic would be lighter than traditional versions.
The tradeoff will not be exchanging that new car smell for the homey aroma of cooked tomatoes, Ms. Lee said.
The car maker has a panel of people assigned to monitoring odors, a group that sniffs any components going in its vehicles to make sure drivers won’t be trapped inside with unexpected scents.
Ford has been working with plant fibers for more than a decade, said Ms. Lee, and last year introduced cellulose fiber-reinforced console components and rice hull-filled electrical cowl brackets.
The company is also working with coconut-based composite materials and recycled cotton material for carpeting and seat fabrics.
In 2012, Ford and Heinz, along with Coca-Cola, Nike, and Procter & Gamble, formed a collaborative devoted to developing 100 percent plant-based PET materials and fiber for use in their products. Polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET, is a lightweight plastic used in things like plastic bottles, shoes, fabric, and carpet.
Late last year, the two companies were part of a group of consumer brand companies that joined with the World Wildlife Fund to create the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, meant to make sure the use of plant products like switchgrass, corn, and sugar cane for plastic products would be done responsibly.
The tomato experiment developed as a result of those relationships. About a year ago or so, Ms. Lee said Heinz representatives asked if there might be a use for some of the waste created when the food company chops up tons of tomatoes to make ketchup.
The resulting piles of stems and peels are now used for dairy feed, said Michael Mullen, senior vice president of corporate and government affairs at Heinz.
Before the tomato waste could be used, it needed to be dried and then ground. Then it was combined with a polyproprylene and cooked.
The resulting plastic isn’t as strong as some other products. “It can’t replace a structural composite,” said Ms. Lee, but cars and trucks use so many different kinds of plastics that purposes can be found for many different kinds.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Teresa F. Lindeman is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
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