The production of one bottle of olive oil, a kitchen staple for many, can generate waste equivalent to four bottles consisting of olive peel, pulp, stones and wastewater. If left untreated and sent to landfill, these waste materials can pollute groundwater and soil and release greenhouse gas emissions.
To tackle this, Mechanical Engineering student Claudio Reinhard at ETH Zurich has developed a technology that extracts and processes antioxidants from olive waste, which can be used as natural additives in cosmetics and food.
Claudio, who initially set out to study the use of biochar in Tunisian soils, came across the country’s oliviculture and the extent of waste produced from olive oil production. Claudio identified the untapped potential of the waste material and set out to find uses for the valuable compounds that were just getting lost.
“I wanted to find a way to reuse agricultural waste in support of a sustainable circular economy,” said Reinhard in an ETH Zurich statement.
Globally, around 12 million tonnes of waste is generated every year from olive oil production. Only 20 per cent of the olive fruit mass ends up in extra virgin olive oil, while the remaining 80 per cent forms a residual by-product called olive pomace - containing the skin, seed and pulp.
Due to its high concentration of organic phenolic compounds (more commonly known as antioxidants), pomace can also make a great low-cost resource. Currently, the substance remains highly underutilised and has mainly been used for extraction of low-quality pomace oil.
“Until now, 98 per cent of the antioxidants were simply thrown away,” said Reinhard in an ETH Zurich statement.
“This is very important to many end customers, who are critical of synthetic additives.”
The antioxidants are extracted from the olive oil waste as a liquid, which initially looks like dark honey and is very bitter. Upon multiple purification steps, the antioxidants are made into a marketable product.
To develop this technology, Claudio teamed up with Professor Laura Nyström from the Laboratory of Food Biochemistry at ETH Zurich, who combined her food knowledge with his technical expertise to start the Phenoliva research project in 2019. This further led to the foundation and commercialisation of their spin-off Gaia Tech in 2021.
Claudio plans to collaborate further with industry partners to develop their customer base and network, starting with the cosmetics industry. He also plans to expand and scale this technology to reuse waste from different agricultural sectors such as almond, cocoa and coffee farms.
Learn more about how Gaia Tech’s technology can support creating value from agricultural byproducts on their website.