Beijing, 13 September 2013
Last week, I was up in Xinjiang (or the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, to give it its full title), where I and some colleagues were discussing possible projects and visiting some industrial plants. The most intriguing of these visits was to a plant where this welcomed you when you arrived.
Readers would be excused if, like me when I got out of the car and like my wife when I showed her this picture, they scratch their heads and ask themselves what on earth this stuff is.
Tomato waste, that’s what it is.
Yes, these are the left-overs from the process to make tomato paste, a significant industry in Xinjiang, which grows some 4 million tons of tomatoes a year. As you might imagine, with a process that basically squeezes the juice out of tomatoes for further concentration the waste consists primarily of tomato seeds and skins.
Mr. Liu, a spry septuagenarian and founder of the company, met us as we got out of the cars and led us to the exhibition room. He started by explaining that he was on the rebound with this company; he set it up after going bankrupt in a previous foray into capitalism. The business model Mr. Liu adopted in this new venture is simple but ingenious. He takes the tomato wastes off the hands of the tomato paste makers, who are glad to offload them at no cost since they don’t know what to do with them. So far so good. But he doesn’t just dump them in a convenient hole somewhere as most waste dealers still do in this part of the world. No, he works his magic on the wastes to make a whole series of new products with them.
The most important of these is tomato seed oil. Yes, you can press all those little seeds in a tomato
and make this lovely orange-colored oil
No doubt the colour comes from a combination of the gold of oil with the red of lycopene, the chemical which gives tomatoes their red colour. The oil commands premium prices from restaurateurs and others who have refined culinary tastes.
But Mr. Liu is not satisfied with just this one product. He also makes a skin tonifier from the juice squeezed out of the waste.
He told us it contains high levels of anti-oxidants, so is excellent for slowing down the aging process. As proof of this assertion, he said he was made aware of the juice’s beneficial effects by his workers who, it seems, were padding around in the juice with only sandals on and discovered that the skin of their feet was rejuvenated. I pass on this nugget of information without in any way suggesting that I believe it.
Mr. Liu also makes pills from this same juice, no doubt to encourage digestion or some such (I can’t believe the skin of our stomachs and intestines need rejuvenation).
And with everything that is left over Mr. Liu makes cattle feed. Apparently, cattle quite like tomato waste once the seeds have been removed. They clearly have refined palates.
Despite his 70 years, Mr. Liu is bubbling over with new ideas. He showed us a new silo where he will start storing the tomato left-overs so that he can process the stuff more regularly throughout the year – right now, he is forced to do a lot of processing at harvest time and to stand idle the rest of the year. I didn’t quite understand how he planned to avoid the waste from rotting; something about adopting a system used for centuries by farmers in Xinjiang to preserve their cattle feed (the translation got a bit tangled at this point). He is also planning to start processing the small, green tomatoes which are left behind in the fields at harvest time and which actually represent some 20% of the tomatoes grown. And no doubt he has other ideas up his capacious sleeves.
I really admire people like Mr. Liu. He is the embodiment of that phrase much loved in certain environmental circles, “from waste to profits”. I don’t pretend that Mr. Liu invented the process of extracting oil from tomato seeds – a rapid surf of the web after the visit showed me this (although the lotion may be his idea). But he had the courage, after a ruinous bankruptcy which left him more or less only with the clothes on his back, to set up a new business, seeing an opportunity where others would only turn up their noses. And he keeps on coming up with new products to squeeze out of his tomato wastes.
I feel duty bound, however, to report a slight hiccup in all this. A few mornings ago, my wife tersely informed me by text that the skin tonifier which I gave her to try made her smell like a tomato. For a tomato lover like myself this may actually be a plus, but for others with a more measured relationship to the tomato this news may give them pause.
Tomato waste: my picture
Tomato seeds: http://www.fixityourself.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/SavingSeeds1.jpg
Tomato seed oil: http://www.onecoup.com/uploadfile/2011822325.jpg
Tomato tonifier: my picture