The husk of a coconut is being burned as waste in Asia. Dutch entrepreneurs want to use the fibres as a raw material for pallets and boards. The coconut is part of a multibillion-dollar industry, but also an environmental disaster. We eat the pulp, drink the juice, and wash ourselves with the oils. The brown bark, about a third of the coconut, is being wasted: burned or thrown away. This causes thirty billion kilograms of unnecessary bio-waste a year. The Dutch entrepreneur Michiel Vos wants to use this coconut waste to make sustainable pallets for the Asian export market. According to him, the plan is not only a solution for the huge pile of tropical waste, but also for deforestation.
Vos calculates that Asia makes about 1.2 billion pallets a year. The softwood that is needed for this mostly comes from the West. The main suppliers are the coniferous and deciduous forests of Canada, New Zealand and the Baltic States. “Complete forests are shipped all over the world, made into pallets in Asia, shoved under boxes and sent away. A part of it stays in Asia, but a lot comes back to Europe and America,” says Vos. “Pallets travelling around the world is a waste of energy and money.”
The reason for importing wood is simple: softwood barely grows naturally in Asia. Countries like China, Thailand and Indonesia have also introduced a logging ban to combat dramatic deforestation. But there is an abundance of coconut plantations, with enormous piles of ‘waste wood’.
Vos makes another calculation: yearly, 62 billion coconuts are harvested around the world, of which 90 percent come from Asia. The coconut production was in the hands of small farmers for a long time. But since the health hype around coconuts, more and more large companies have come onto the market, such as Vita Coco, Nestlé and Coca-Cola. They invest in large scale coconut plantations. Most of the products in the coconut industry are made out of the white pulp called copra. The brown fibre husk is sometimes used to spin rope or make brushes or coco mats. Vos: “But that is just a small market. 85 percent of the bark is not being used.”
The method to press coconut waste into coco board material was invented in 2005 by researchers of Wageningen University. It is a sustainable and Co2 neutral process, which only uses pressure and heat. Farmers collect the coconut husks at plantations. The hard brown shell and fibrous husk are grind by hand and heated in a press under high pressure. Under pressure and high temperature, the coconut waste changes into board material.
No synthetic glue
An additional advantage of this process is that the coconut husk is filled with the substance lignin, which becomes sticky when heated, and functions as a natural binder. This prevents the use of synthetic glue or any other chemical binder anywhere in the process.
The result, a coconut pallet, looks like a finger thick dark brown board with grooves. When stacked, the pallets click together like Lego bricks, so that Vos’ CocoPallets take up little space.
Vos is not the only one producing ‘coconut boards’. Entrepreneur Sylvia ten Houten makes wood-like boards from coconut waste from Indonesia. The sturdy coconut boards can be used in the building and furniture industry. “I lived in Indonesia as a child and wanted to bind myself to the country again by starting a business there. In Indonesia, you quickly end up at the coconut. Coconut water was on the rise and I thought I could make a profit there, too.”
Then, Ten Houten discovered the Wageningen University method to make coconut boards. “I saw all these farmers burning piles of coconut waste. An environmental issue, but also a part of profit that literally went up in flames, while coconut farmers are amongst the poorest in the world.” With her start-up Goodhout, Sylvia buys coconut waste from the farmers and has it pressed into planks for the European market. “That is where my customers are. Europeans are prepared to pay a little more for beautiful, sustainable products. There has to be a profit of course.”
The potential of the coconut waste does not stop with pallets and boards. In a short time, dozens of new products made out of recycled coconut bark emerged on the market. Such as coconut matrasses and coconut potting soil, and designer bags and coconut sound barriers. The coconut industry is moving in Asia as well. In the Philippines and Fiji, busses and cars have been using a mixture of petrol and coconut diesel as fuel.
“The coconut palm is called the Tree of Life in Asia because of its numerous applications. I believe that a castaway can survive on an island with just coconuts,” says Vos.
He is not planning to switch to a coconut diet, but says he has a dozen other plans for the nut apart from CocoPallet. “What I like about the coconut industry is the simplicity. No E-numbers or unpronounceable chemicals, all products consist of one thing: coconut. What we make with it depends on our creativity.”
Farmers’ coconut waste changes into board material under pressure and high temperature.
GRAPHIC: Coconut plantations with piles of ‘wood waste’. There are plenty possibilities.