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Zero-waste practices fueling oil palm industry on self-sustaining future

SC Chin, Research writer
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The usefulness of oil palm makes it such an envious crop that enriches our modern civilization one way or another, knowingly and unknowingly, considering more than half the supermarket products carry this crucial ingredient, either in food and non-food applications.

Palm oil demand will continue to grow in tandem with our population growth. Fortunately, it is the most versatile of all vegetable oils. This is because palm oil and palm kernel oil can be processed into a wide range of products with different melting points, consistencies and characteristics for different purposes.

The golden truth is embedded in the ways we grow and harvest oil palm across the entire value chain from upstream through midstream to downstream - when the earth is looking for efficient solutions to feed at least 9 billion people by 2050.

The good news is that oil palm is so productive and efficient at the same time. More significantly, every part of it can be utilised so that nothing is wasted. Even the by-products of palm oil processing and production can be turned into something useful such as biofuel and animal feed, making oil palm one of nature’s highly prized zero-waste crops.

Let’s start with how oil palm fruit is harvested before it is processed into finished products. Oil palm fibres (exocarp) and palm kernel shells (endocarp) are waste by-products after the oil palm fruits are crushed to extract the crude palm oil. They can be utilised in boilers for steam generation in most palm oil mills, whereas empty fruit bunches are being repurposed as organic fertilizer and mulching purposes.

Palm oil mill effluent (POME), the wastewater produced by the mill during the crude palm oil extraction process, can be used to produce yeast biomass by fermentation without costly pretreatment or nutrient supplementation. The biomass production process constitutes a cost effective biological treatment for reduction of pollution in the wastewater. The cultured POME can also act as an enriched and compound feed for animals, or be converted into organic fertiliser (compost) and biogas/ biofuels.

So far we have talked about exocarp and endocarp, now let’s move on to mesocarp, the reddish-orange flesh, where palm oil is extracted; and the kernel in the centre, where we get the palm kernel oil. Both palm oil and palm kernel oil are used in many household products, ranging from cooking oil to palm-based margarine/ chocolate/ biscuits, soap, detergents, cosmetics and biodiesel. What is worth noting here is that according to Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffe e.V. (FNR) [The Agency for Renewable Resources], palm biodiesel is the most efficient biofuel as compared to soy biodiesel, rapeseed biodiesel, bioethanol, jatropha biodiesel, sundiesel, and biomethane.

And what happens to the empty fruit bunches (EFB)? Just as its name suggest, these are what remain once the individual oil palm fruits have been removed from the bunches. These EFB are composted and reused as organic fertiliser in plantations. Downstream innovative advancement has also seen the discovery of turning EFB into potential construction products such as roof tiles. Processed EFB fibres may also be used for industrial and farming applications as a raw material for wood-based products (eg. particle and fiberboards), composite panels, pulp and paper, soil stabilization, and horticultural applications.

What about oil palm trees that have been felled? Palm wood – the new sustainable green material. It is derived from oil palm trunks when they are felled for replanting at the end of the plant’s economic life cycle. The density of palm wood ranges from 150 to 800kg/m3. Medium to high density palm wood is comparable to medium to heavy hardwood. The broad density range makes palm wood suitable for production into a wide range of wooden products.

Little do we know, oil palm fronds (leaves) can be converted into mulch and organic fertilizer. Fronds are usually cut during harvesting of fruit bunches and pruning. They also contain the cellulose and sugar needed for the production of biofuels and biochemical. Additionally, they provide mulching that helps conserve the soil moisture and control the weed growth.

A research by Suhaila Mohamed from University Putra Malaysia found that oil palm leaves polar extract (OPLE) has 8% higher contents of nontoxic, ant oxidative phenolic compounds than green tea extract. It has also been shown to beneficially affect lipid profile, blood pressure, blood physical and biochemical cancer markers and is organ protective. And the OPLE is rich in antioxidative catechins and have good cardiovascular as well as phytoestrogenic properties.

Again, the laudable buzzwords for the oil palm industry are reuse, recover and recycle, in the name of sustainable living, for our planet earth. With the inevitable advancement of new innovations, zero-waste policy is rising to the occasion with promising ‘green-wealth’ opportunities amid pressing economic, societal and environmental challenges. 


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