Month: April 2024

Upcycling palm oil waste to mitigate climate change

Let’s check our shopping list, does it include items such as shampoo, detergent, margarine or cookies? According to the WWF, it is highly likely that some or all these items contain palm oil. You have probably heard about the negative connection between palm oil and deforestation and displacement of wildlife. However, you might be unaware of the large amount of waste generated during its production. Here, IMSE’s latest guest blogger, PhD researcher from Future Materials Group,  Dharu Smaradhana, discusses his research into waste generated by palm oil production and its potential as sustainable material.

Palm oil is criticised due to deforestation concerns, but replacing it with other vegetable oils is not a straightforward solution. Palm oil is the most land-efficient vegetable oil crop. It supplies 40% of the world’s demand while using less than 6% of the land allocated for all vegetable oil production. Alternatives like soybean, coconut or sunflower oil require considerably more land which could lead to additional environmental damage.

Comparison of palm oil yields to other vegetable oils.
Comparison of palm oil yields to other vegetable oils. Image credit: Valori news

Palm oil environmental impact beyond deforestation

Currently, nearly half of all packaged products contain palm oil, from foods and personal care items to animal feed and biofuels. Palm oil use is inevitable, but it carries environmental challenges. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded in 2004 to promote sustainable palm oil production that protects forests and community rights. Nevertheless, mitigating the waste generated from palm oil production is another critical issue that needs addressing.

Production of palm oil generates many solid wastes, notably from empty fruit bunches (EFB). Every ton of palm oil generates around 1.1 tons of EFB. This bulky and moist waste presents considerable disposal challenges. Incinerating EFB contributes to environmental pollution, while simply discarding it results in the release of methane, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Empty fruit bunches in palm oil plantation.
Palm oil plantation in Palawan, Philippines. Image credit: USAID Biodiversity and Forestry Flickr

Upcycling palm oil waste into construction materials

As material engineers, we also recognise the transformative potential of EFB in revolutionising the production of board products used in the construction and furniture industries such as particleboard and fibreboard. Conventionally, these boards are manufactured by combining wood fibres with synthetic binders like urea-formaldehyde, and then compressing the mixture under heat. However, these fossil-derived polymers present health hazards and pose environmental concerns due to their inability to degrade naturally.

Considering the challenges, EFB fibres emerge as an eco-friendly substitute for traditional wood fibres, enhancing sustainability in agriculture and industry. Our initiative involves producing EFB boards using cellulose from pulp as the binder, avoiding the use of synthetic products. Following simple manufacturing steps mimicking the paper-making process, EFB boards match the mechanical performance of commercial fibreboards.

Round EFB board utilising cellulose as the binder.
EFB board utilising cellulose as the binder. Credit: Dharu Smaradhana.

Circular economy and climate change mitigation

Lifecycle assessment (LCA) studies also show that the EFB board substantially reduces the environmental impact. Particularly, in terms of global warming potential, when compared to traditional fibreboards that utilise fossil-derived binders.

By upcycling waste from palm oil production in such an innovative way, we are contributing to climate change mitigation and advancing towards a more sustainable, circular economy.

Multidisciplinary approach to Zero Waste

Have you ever given an object a second life? Reusing yogurt pots to grow plants or a mug with a broken handle turned into a pencil holder. I recently made cushions out of coffee beans sacks from the nearby roasters. You probably also recycle glass bottles and carry a tote bag when going shopping, reducing the number of plastic bags.

Empty yogurt pots used to grow plants.
Re-using yogurt pots to grow plants. Image credit: Flickr, Ilja Klutman.

From linear to circular economy

These are all examples of a circular economy. Established as a concept in the 70s, circular economy is the system of production and consumption that reduces waste to a minimum. Extending a product’s life is achievable by re-using, repairing, recycling and sharing, all of which create further value. Circular economy is the opposite of the linear economy model, where goods are simply thrown away after use.

Circular economy diagram.
Circular economy model to reduce waste. Image credit: Centro de Documentacion Europea de Almeria

Inventing new ways to reuse and recycle objects is fun and sustainable. However, it only tackles waste generation from the consumption side, ignoring the production and transport part of a product life cycle. Waste is not just created when an object is discarded but also beforehand, when it is made. Sourcing materials, fabrication processes leading to left-overs, transport and packaging also contribute to waste production.

What counts as waste?

The first step towards achieving zero waste is to determine the stages at which it is produced. This can be done through an approach called life-cycle assessment (LCA). LCA is the evaluation of the environmental impact of goods or services throughout their entire life, from “cradle to grave”.

Multidisciplinary approach to achieve zero waste

Researchers at the Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering (IMSE) use the LCA approach to tackle waste at the beginning of the lifecycle, during the design phase. Using a molecular science approach, scientists examine materials’ structure and properties, considering how well they can be recycled. Meanwhile, from the engineering side, they assess manufacture processes and energy requirements, transport options and ultimately material performance.

Above all, the circular economy and LCA approaches aim to consider the entire life of a product. Improving one part of the cycle – e.g. manufacturing – should not simply shift the impact to another part of the cycle – e.g. recycling/degradation. Let’s think about plastics. Choosing an easier to recycle polymer to make a new plastic object could have consequences during transport and even function. Would faster degradation affect how we use an object or the way we transport it? The opposite also applies, making an object very durable will affect how it degrades and pollutes the environment after use.

Life cycle assessment of plastic production.
Assessing the environmental impacts across the life cycle of plastics requires multidisciplinary approaches. Image credit: European Environment Agency

Reaching zero waste will require a wide vision of the lifecycle, using multidisciplinary approaches and collaborating across expertise. That is not to say that you should stop reinventing objects you already have! The perfect occasion would be following the international day of zero waste on the 30th of March  –  what would you be re-using or repairing to celebrate?