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Would you like a side of fries with that headliner?

By: Don Loepp

June 11, 2014

Would you like a side of fries with that headliner? How about some anchovies on your dashboard?

The food jokes almost write themselves when it comes to the news that Ford Motor Co. is working with H.J. Heinz Co. to develop a bioplastic made from tomato fiber for use in automotive applications.

Even Ford got into the spirit of things. The headline on its news release: "You Say Tomato; We Say Tom-Auto: Ford and Heinz Collaborate on Sustainable Materials for Vehicles."

I don't think Lorne Michaels is going to be calling Ford's PR staff anytime soon. But to be fair, I don't expect a call, either.

Ford says it is testing the tomato-based material's durability for potential use in vehicle wiring brackets and storage bins — like the little compartments that cars have to hold coins and junk.

“We are exploring whether this food processing byproduct makes sense for an automotive application,” said Ellen Lee, plastics research technical specialist for Ford. “Our goal is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact.”

Ford, Coca-Cola Co., Nike Inc. and Procter & Gamble Inc. started working together on plant-based plastic research about two years ago. The idea is to recycle and repurpose peels, stems and seeds from the more than 2 million tons of tomatoes that Heinz uses ever year to make ketchup.

“We are delighted that the technology has been validated,” said Vidhu Nagpal, associate director, packaging R&D for Heinz. “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.”

I guess it goes to show us that plastics are not only versatile materials, but the can be made from a wide variety of feedstocks. Over the years we've seen researchers come up with plastics from banana peels, shrimp, shells, and all sorts of agricultural byproducts.

Ford itself has commercialized coconut-based composites and polyurethane foam seat cushions and head restraints made from soy feedstocks.

The Ford/Heinz story is getting a lot of attention today in the popular media. Many of the stories have pointed out that if the project is successful, the new-car-smell that consumers are used to won't be replaced by the smell of ketchup or pizza sauce.

Which is a good thing. And all this food talk is making me hungry.