The Ford Motor Company collaborating with leading catsup manufacturer Heinz isn’t something you see every day, but the research project was just announced. H.J. Heinz Company uses over 2 million tons of tomatoes each year, which generates a lot of inedible by-products: peels, stems, and seeds. Some wise people decided that maybe there was some potential to turn the inedible parts into a more sustainable bioplastic that could be used in car manufacturing.
Specifically, it is thought that this new bioplastic could be used in wiring brackets and material for onboard vehicle storage bins. If proved to be a viable material, using a plant-based bioplastic would reduce the amount of petrochemical manufacturing and the amount of petroleum-based plastic in the environment. (Imagine how much is already in junk yards.)
“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,” explained Ellen Lee, a plastics research technical specialist for Ford.
Of the American auto manufacturers, Ford has been a leader in the incorporation of sustainability into its production practices. Below are some examples of plant-based materials it is already using:
- cellulose fiber-reinforced console components
- rice hull-filled electrical cowl brackets
- soy foam seat cushions and head restraints
- recycled cotton material for seat fabrics and carpeting
- coconut-based composite materials.
Using existing materials for a different purpose is a common practice in innovation, sometimes called incremental innovation. In other words, there is a tendency to think of innovation as “breakthroughs” or big changes, but small ones can be valuable too.
“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% plant-based plastics,” said Vidhu Nagpal, associate director, of packaging R&D for Heinz.
It was about two years ago that Ford began working on developing a 100% plant-based plastic with Nike, Proctor and Gamble, the Coca-Cola Company, and Heinz. If their research is successful, a new bioplastic made from waste plant products could be cheaper to produce than using petroleum. It could also be lighter, so there are potential fuel savings for vehicles that utilize bioplastics.
Ford and Heinz researching the potential of new bioplastics could also lead to other inadvertent discoveries, sometimes known as happy accidents. Such collaboration often is what generates new ideas and insights.