Ford, Heinz work on tomato-based car, but it isn't easy

Ford Motor Company and H.J. Heinz have partnered up to create a car run on tomato waste. But both Ford and Heinz have realized the challenges in their pursuits.

Gene J. Puskar/AP/File
Ford logo is seen on the grill of 2013 Ford F-350 truck. Ford and Heinz want to create car parts using tomatoes.

Electric cars. Emissions targets. Biofuels. Slowly but surely, the auto industry is cruising toward a future of less waste and more potentially sustainable practices. A new partnership between Ford Motor Company and H.J. Heinz shows just how complicated the process can be, though.

Heinz uses about two million tons of tomatoes to produce its world-famous ketchup. But of course, it can't use every part of the fruit: mounds of peels, stems and seeds are left over, and the company has been looking for ways to make use of them. (Presumably, profitable ways.)

Meanwhile, designers at Ford have been working to make vehicles greener. The 2012 Ford Focus Electric famously employed plastic soda bottles and milk jugs to create underbody shields and air cleaner assemblies. The automaker has also tried to incorporate plant matter in its car parts. Over the past few years, we've seen Ford use soy-based rubber in several applications and Canadian wheat straw to construct plastic storage bins and door panels

Two years ago, in something like a quirky, B2B Craigslist hookup, Heinz, Ford, Coca-Cola, Nike, and Procter & Gamble found one another. Since then, the five companies have been exploring ways to replace conventional, petrochemical-based plastic with materials derived completely from plant matter.

This week, Ford announced that it and Heinz have made a good bit of progress, as they've worked to turn the latter's tomato waste into the former's bioplastics. Ford says that tomato skins, for example, may ultimately be used to create plastic for wiring brackets, panels, or storage bins. (Still no word on the seeds and stems, which, as any college student can tell you, are problematic.)

Our take

How far can Ford go with projects like this? It's hard to say.

Ellen Lee, a plastics research technical specialist with the automaker, says that "Our goal is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact." 

Which is great, but it avoids any mention of economic imperatives. Despite the hazards involved in producing and employing plastics derived from petrochemicals, companies keep doing so because it's cheap. Recycling old materials and creating new ones from waste takes time and considerably more money -- at least in the initial phases. That's a deterrent to managers and shareholders focused on the bottom line.

There are also limits to the safety and effectiveness of these new materials. Plant-derived products may be fine for building storage bins, but no one's found a way to use them as substitutes for sheetmetal. (Though that hasn't kept some from trying.) Shifting to aluminum car bodies can lessen the environmental impact of auto manufacturing, since aluminum is easily recycled, but the dream of a fully recycled or bio-based car is a long way off.

And sadly, future technology isn't necessarily much cleaner. As eco-friendly as battery electric and fuel cell vehicles may seem, they still require a lot of resources -- not just mined metals that create car batteries, but also electricity that's often generated from "dirty" sources.

Like global warming, education, the obesity epidemic, and countless other contemporary problems, greening cars can't be done in one fell swoop. It's death – or in this case, success – by a thousand cuts. Kudos to Ford and Heinz for taking a stab at it.

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