November 16, 2016

November 16, 2016

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Stacking coconut

November 16, 2016


The Amsterdam based company CocoPallet is pressing husk waste from coconut plantations into pallets. This can save millions of trees.


Pallets: Waste products offers coconut farmers extra income

It is left behind like garbage: the hard, hairy husk that surrounds the coconut and gives it a soft landing. A small part of it is used to make coco mats, the rest is left to rot. The plantations are happy when you come to collect it, according to Amsterdam native Michiel Vos.


He started CocoPallet five years ago with the idea to make good use of coconut waste. From Wageningen University, he learned that the husk can be used as a raw material to make wood-like boards. Vos decided to make pallets for the container ships taht take Asian products all over the world. Not without success: last month in Paris, CocoPallet was chosen as one of the ten winners of the start-up award Hello Tomorrow. This coming year CocoPallet will build its first factory on Sumatra. 


The advantage of the coconut husk is that it contains a natural binding substance, which eliminates the need for polluting synthetic glue. To compress it, however, the right amount of pressure and temperature had to be found. “If one of the twelve parameters is not correct, the material will fall apart. At a certain point, we were unable to open the press at all, because too much glue substance was released.”


Essential doubt


The search for the right parameters seemed to become a never-ending story. “The technicians all speak Chinese and their first reaction was: it can’t be done,” says Vos. “If I had listened to their advice I would have quit a long time ago.” But he now realises the setbacks have been useful. “Doubt is an essential part of development. More so than believing it will work out.”


Vos calls himself an autodidact. He is a Gulf War veteran and has been a trader in natural stone for years. He knows all too well that there are no certainties for CocoPallet. “It is possible that it turns out disastrous,” he says lightly. A little later, not any less lightly: “If others copy us, that’s fine. Even more poor coconut farmers can make a profit.” Because CocoPallet pays the farmers for gathering and transporting the coconut husks. 


But right now, the prospects are good. Vos is being backed by consultancy firm Spring Associates as an investor. Except Hello Tomorrow, they also won the innovation award from consultancy firm Accenture. Next week, Vos will join a trade mission to Indonesia in the entourage of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and State Secretary Sharon Dijksma, among others.


CocoPallet hopes to open three to five factories in the next five years, starting with Sumatra – close to the coconut cultivation and near the main artery of world trade. Vos thinks re-using the coconut husk is most useful there. Pallets are now being made out of soft wood that is being shipped to the Far East from New Zealand, the Baltic states and Siberia. CocoPallet hopes to produce five million pallets in the coming five years. This would save up to half a million trees.


Many advantages

But, coconut pallets have more advantages. Because they can be stacked very compactly, they are very well re-usable, while wooden pallets are often discarded after one use. The heating during the pressing process also gets rid of any pests – everything that was in there, is dead. The high density of the material does the rest. “Termites don’t eat it and they can’t enter it.”


Another advantage: the material is fire retardant, allowing CocoPallet to expect a lot of sale in the chemical industry. In the long run, this might make the material suitable to press the rear shelf of a car, for example. Also because it is light weight.


CocoPallet needs these kinds of strengths to displace wooden pallets. The environmental benefits will not prevail. Vos knows this, since he already unsuccessfully tried to market a hardwood replacement. He pulls out a bat made of pressed bamboo, a handy yet heavy club. “It didn’t work out, because it was more expensive than illegally harvested hardwoods.”


This was again one of his setbacks on the way to CocoPallet. “Another lesson learned, although it cost me a lot of money. Who knows it will come in handy when the prices for hardwood rise – which will eventually happen.” The lesson for the coconut pallets: it is not enough to just have a better product. “Nobody will pay extra for a more sustainable solution.” It has to be cheaper, too. “That is the only thing that will make companies change.”


GRAPHIC: The coconut husk pressed pallets are lighter than wooden pallets, and even fire retardant.

Michiel Vos, inventor of the pallets of coconut husk.

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