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Tomato skins could be the new plastic for cars

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A tomato could one day be Ford tough.

Researchers from H.J. Heinz Co. and Ford Motor Co. are studying the possibility of using tomatoes to make plastic parts for cars.

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

Heinz and Ford, the latter whose “Built Ford Tough” tagline has sold trucks to generations of consumers, are hoping to develop composite material from tomato skins left over from the foodmaker's ketchup manufacturing. The material could replace the petroleum-based plastics used for wiring brackets, storage bins or other interior parts in automobiles, the companies said Tuesday in a statement.

“The technology looks promising,” Heinz spokesman Michael Mullen said. “At Heinz, we know tomatoes are good for people; now Ford will see if tomatoes can make its vehicles even more environmentally friendly.”

While it may seem far-fetched, plant fibers are showing up in a variety of plastic alternatives as researchers explore ways to reduce the use of petroleum.

In 2011, Heinz started packaging ketchup in the PlantBottle, a plastic container made with 30 percent plant material that was developed by the Coca-Cola Co.

Both plants and oil contain carbon atoms, which are the building blocks of plastics, said Newell Washburn, a professor of chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University.

So far it is more expensive to produce plastics from plants because there are more steps involved, he said. But many companies are dedicating significant research to replacing petroleum with plant material for plastic production.

“There's a lot more momentum in this direction than people realize,” he said.

Plant fibers have been used as a reinforcing additive in composite plastics for years, said Eric Beckman, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.

Flax and hemp are sources of plant fibers used in plastics, he said. “It's fun to think of tomatoes as part of it.”

Heinz said in the statement that it turned to the auto company while searching for ways to recycle the peels, stems and seeds from more than 2 million tons of tomatoes it uses each year to produce its ketchup.

“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,” said Vidhu Nagpal, associate director of packaging research at Heinz.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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