The Sustainability Buzz

Tomato Skins to Storage Bins: Ford Gives Us a Lesson in Unlikely Partnerships

Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company

Several years ago, we wrote about the flea market principle of sustainability, where one company’s trash becomes another company’s treasure.  When we worked at Kraft Foods, we saw this principle first-hand, with an enormous amount of their waste, especially food waste and cardboard, being reused by partner organizations, often with financial benefit to Kraft. It’s not uncommon for food and beverage manufacturers with a spent grain waste stream to work with farmers to use this product as animal feed.  Kraft does it, as do breweries like Victory Brewing Company, located just outside of Philadelphia.

But these partnerships, while commendable and certainly still not the norm, seem somewhat natural.  Human food waste being used as feedstock for animals isn’t new, and it’s been one of the main ways that food has been “reused” for centuries.  That’s why when we heard about Ford Motor Company’s new partnership with H.J. Heinz Co. (everyone’s favorite ketchup manufacturer) to turn tomato skins into wiring brackets, our interest was piqued.  The union of an automotive company and a ketchup titan seems less, well, obvious.

Ford is really no stranger to finding uses for what otherwise may be considered waste materials and repurposing them into something useful.  Recycled yarn and plastic bottles feature in upholstery materials, recycled wood appears in interior trim, and their Escape dashboards contain about ten pounds of blue jeans, T-shirts and sweaters.

More recently, though, they’ve started expanding their reuse efforts into using waste bio-materials as substitutes for petroleum-based plastics.  Last year, they added rice hulls, a byproduct of rice grain, to the list of sustainable materials used in the F-150.  Ford also has partnered with Coca-Cola to use the soda maker’s PlantBottle technology, which incorporates byproducts of the sugar production process, to create a fabric for its Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid vehicle.  And now it looks like tomato skins may feature in the company’s wiring brackets and coin storage bins, the latter traditionally having been made from petroleum-based plastics.

It appears to be a strategy that’s paying off for Ford.  When Interbrand’s annual Best Global Green Brands report came out late last month, Ford topped it, beating out perennial favorite (and competitor), Toyota, which claimed the top spot the last three years.

As with many other savvy manufacturers, it’s not just about the environment for Ford—it’s about profits, too.  Moving away from petroleum-based materials is smart from a cost-avoidance and risk mitigation perspective.  Whereas a barrel of oil may have cost only $16 in the early 2000s, today it may go for $115 or more.  As oil continues to rise in price and volatility, Ford is cleverly insulating itself from those increases by finding treasure in another company’s trash.

If Ford is any example, companies—and the environment—stand to benefit when they look for sustainable partnerships in unlikely places.  If your company isn’t looking outside of itself when it comes to sustainability, maybe it’s time to ask yourself, why not?


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