This one’s ripe for a joke: Ford took tomatoes, and turned them into a car. Yes, you read that right. The auto company wasn’t even using fruit enraged customers had thrown at its CEO — instead, it worked with Heinz, which was looking for a use for the byproduct it generates in the process of making foods like ketchup. Before you go tossing lemon jokes around, though, Ford’s initiative is interesting, creating an eco-friendly solution to a serious problem.
The food industry generates a massive volume of waste material annually, with perfectly usable organic material being thrown out or composted when it could be turned to more productive uses. This is expensive for manufacturers, and it’s also a loss to consumers, who have to shoulder the processing and waste costs (manufacturers pay for what they buy, not what they use). In this pilot project, Ford is exploring the possibility of using tomato skins and fibers to make a form of bioplastic that could be used to make plastic car components such as cup holders.
This would allow the company to stop using petroleum-based plastics for this purpose, while still building cars with durable, lightweight plastics. Durability is important, and the lighter the plastic, the lighter the car, and the less fuel it uses. Plastics are easier to clean and maintain than other materials, making them a great choice for vehicles, which tend to see a great deal of hard use. Bioplastics provide the convenience desired by automakers and many consumers, without having to rely on petroleum, and they also represent a fantastic way to use waste products, adding value to the production process.
By making every stage of the process valuable and creating an incentive to save waste material, Ford and other companies coming up with solutions like this are helping consumers and manufacturers out, and they’re also helping the environment. Instead of using up virgin materials, they’re turning to used materials — and, better yet, to waste materials that would just get tossed if someone hadn’t developed a use for them.
This doesn’t, of course, let companies off the hook for their other environmental offenses. Ford, along with other automakers, has opposed better fuel efficiency standards, and hasn’t invested heavily in alternative fuel vehicles or the development of effective public transit across the United States to make it easier for people to skip the cars and take the train instead. Ford has also been cited in industrial pollution lawsuits and OSHA has penalized it for labor violations. These facts are important to keep in mind when praising companies for their more socially and environmentally responsible moves — it’s important to look at a company’s warts and all to avoid rewarding it for harmful business practices.
Photo credit: Dwight Sipler.