Catherine Hansen is a returned Peace Corps volunteer and graduate from West Virginia University, where she studied for her Masters in Sustainable Development. She recently returned from a 27-month service in Morocco where she was serving as a Youth Development volunteer designing literacy, health, and environmental programming for youth in collaboration with local associations and volunteers. One of her main life goals is to share her passion for protecting the environment from human harm by bringing awareness to environmental issues that are often times over looked. Through outreach and education, Catherine hopes to inspire a refreshed appreciation for our natural world. She aims to begin her career in environmental services within the year.
Solid waste management is one of the major environmental problems threatening the Kingdom of Morocco. More than 5 million tons of solid waste is generated across the country with annual waste generation growth rate touching 3 percent. The proper disposal of municipal solid waste in Morocco is exemplified by major deficiencies such as lack of proper infrastructure and suitable funding in areas outside of major cities.
According to the World Bank, it was reported that before a recent reform in 2008 “only 70 percent of urban wastes was collected and less than 10 percent of collected waste was being disposed of in an environmentally and socially acceptable manner. There were 300 uncontrolled dumpsites, and about 3,500 waste-pickers, of which 10 percent were children, were living on and around these open dumpsites.”
It is not uncommon to see trash burning as a means of solid waste disposal in Morocco. Currently, the municipal waste stream, including hazardous wastes, is disposed of in a reckless and unsustainable manner which has major effects on public health and the environment. The lack of waste management infrastructure leads to burning of trash as a form of inexpensive waste disposal. Unfortunately, the major health effects of burning trash are either widely unknown or grossly under-estimated to the vast majority of the population in Morocco.
The good news about the future of Morocco’s MSW management is that the World Bank has allocated $271.3 million to the Moroccan government to develop a municipal waste management plan. The plan’s details include restoring around 80 landfill sites, improving trash pickup services, and increasing recycling by 20%, all by the year 2020. While this reform is expected to do wonders for the urban population one can only hope the benefits of this reform trickle down to the 43% of the Moroccan population living in rural areas, like those who are living in my village.
Needless to say, even with Morocco’s movement toward a safer and more environmentally friendly MSW management system there is still an enormous population of people including children and the elderly who this reform will overlook. Until more is done, including funding initiatives and an increase in education, these people will continue to be exposed to hazardous living conditions because of unsuitable funding, infrastructure, policies and education.
Plastics are regarded by some as one of the greatest human inventions and continue to benefit society in more ways than one. However these benefits come at a high environmental cost as research has shown that “over 300 million metric tons of plastics are produced in the world annually and about 50% of this volume is for disposable applications, products that are discarded within a year of their purchase”.
About 50 percent of all plastics produced worldwide are disposed of within one year of being manufactured; now that is a critically important statistic when plastics have been known to have life spans over 500 years. Infact, this is the main reason behind massive waste accumulation of plastics in landfills, drainage systems, water bodies etc. Moreover, plastic’s destruction is evident when in 2009, it was reported that an estimated 150 million tons of fossil fuels were consumed for the production of plastics worldwide.
Given all of these facts, it is no surprise that the pervasive use of non-biodegradable plastics has provoked many environmental and health concerns, especially in developing countries where plastic is often disposed of in unauthorized dumping sites or burned uncontrollably.
One result of this broadening awareness of the global plastic waste problem and its impact on the environment is the development of bioplastics. Bioplastics are based on biomass derived from renewable resources and are in many cases more environmentally friendly than traditional petroleum based plastics. Currently, numerous types of bioplastics are under development, the most popular being Polylactides, Polyglycolic acids, Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), aliphatic polyesters and polysaccharides.
Basic Concepts and Misconceptions
Overall, in the Plastics Industry Trade Association’s 2012 Bioplastics Industry Overview Guide, it is stated that bioplastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable play an important role in further advancing the plastic industry as a whole. Incredibly essential to note, is that within the above statement, it states, the importance of bioplastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable. This statement implies that not all bioplastics are biodegradable and/or bio-based.
In fact, according to a 2011 industry report, there are many characteristics such as degradable, biodegradable, bio-based and compostable that are used to describe bioplastics. However, not every bioplastic is comprised of all of these features. According to the report, this remains a common misconception as the public at large still lacks a clear understanding of the various bioplastic related terms.
For instance, it is commonly thought of that the terms bio-based and biodegradable are interchangeable. However not all bio-based plastics will degrade naturally. In fact, “many bio-based products are designed to behave like traditional petroleum-based plastic, and remain structurally intact for hundreds of years”.
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) defines biodegradable plastics as a plastic in which all the organic carbon can be converted into biomass, water, carbon dioxide, and/or methane via the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, in timeframes consistent with the ambient conditions of the disposal method (Compostable Plastics 101).
This definition implies that there is a specific timeframe for the biodegradation to take place and merely fragmenting into smaller pieces, even if microscopic, does not make a material biodegradable. This definition is commonly confused with the term degradable which is a broader term given to polymers or plastics that simply break down by a number or means, such as physical disintegration, chemical disintegration and biodegradation by natural mechanisms.
After degradation, a degradable plastic can still remain in a smaller or fragmented form unlike that of a biodegradable plastic, which needs to completely biodegrade into water, carbon dioxide and/or methane. This distinction between terms results in polymers that are degradable but not biodegradable.
Another term that is commonly found to describe bioplastics is ‘compostable’. Compostable is defined by ASTM as “a plastic that undergoes biological degradation during composting to yield carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials and leaves no visually distinguishable or toxic residues”.
While the ASTM has specific standards for a plastic to be compostable such as biodegradation, eco-toxicity, and disintegration, the main difference between a plastic being compostable versus biodegradable is the rapid rate at which biodegradation, eco-toxicity, and disintegration occur. Therefore, in theory, all compostable plastics are biodegradable however, not all biodegradable plastics are compostable.
Finally, probably the most often confused term regarding bioplastics is the label, “bio-based”. As defined by the US Department of Agriculture, the term “bio-based” refers to solely the raw materials of the plastic. According to the Department of Agriculture, bio-based materials that are those that are “composed in whole, or in significant part, of biological products or renewable domestic agricultural materials or forestry materials”.
Since the majority, not all, of the materials have to be renewable, many bio-based plastics combine both petroleum-based materials with naturally based ones. For this reason, some researchers have suggested that a bio-based material may not technically be a sustainable product. Therefore, while the two terms are somewhat related, whether or not a product is bio-based is not an independent indicator of whether it is biodegradable.
Making an Informed Decision
This lack of understanding between the terms is a large issue that does not get much recognition. Consumers are increasingly buying more and more bioplastics but are not fully being educated on the differences between the various different types of bioplastics on the markets. While as a whole, bioplastics may have many notable attributes making them excellent alternatives to traditional plastics, they are not considered flawless solutions.
Some bioplastics encompass all of the above qualities while others may only hold one or two of these characteristics; meaning that there is a vast disparity between how environment-friendly different bioplastics might actually be.
Consumers often see the term bioplastic or a bio-based plastic and automatically assume that it will breakdown into the soil like leaves or grass once it is disposed of, when as discussed, this is often not the case. All in all, given the significant differences between the terms, it is very important for consumers to know that “bio-based,” “biodegradable” and “compostable” are individual attributes and be educated on what these characteristics actually mean. It is equally important for manufacturers to be educated on these differences and make proper labeling of their bioplastic products.
Biobased and degradable plastics in California. Retrieved from this link
California Organics Recycling Council. (2011). Compostable plastics 101. Retrieved from this link
Confused by the terms biodegradable & biobased. (n.d.). Retrieved from this link
Divya, G., Archana, T., & Manzano, R. A. (2013). Polyhydroxy alkanoates – A sustainable alternative to petro-based plastics. Petroleum & Environmental Biotechnology, 4(3), 1-8. http://dx.doi.org/10.4172/2157-7463.1000143
Liu, H-Y. (2009). Bioplastics poly(hydroxyalkanoate) production during industrial wastewater treatment. Retrieved from ProQuest Digital Dissertations. (AAT 3362495)
Niaounakis, M. (2013). Biopolymers: Reuse, recycling, and disposal. Waltham, MA: William Andrew Publishing.
North, E. J., & Halden, R. U. (2013). Plastics and environmental health: the road ahead. Reviews on Environmental Health, 28(1), 1-8. doi: 10.1515/reveh-2012-0030
The Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. (2012, April). Bioplastics Industry Overview Guide.
United States Department of Agriculture. (2006). Federal biobased products preferred procurement program. Retrieved from this link
The olive oil industry offers valuable opportunities to farmers in terms of seasonal employment as well as significant employment to the off-farm milling and processing industry. While this industry has significant economic benefits in regards to profit and jobs; the downside is it leads to severe environmental harm and degradation. In 2012, an estimated 2,903,676 tons of olive oil was produced worldwide, the largest olive oil producers being Spain, Italy, and Greece followed by Turkey and Tunisia and to a lesser extent Portugal, Morocco and Algeria. Within the European Union’s olive sector alone, there are roughly 2.5 million producers, who make up roughly one-third of all EU farmers.
Types of Wastes
Currently, there are two processes that are used for the extraction of olive oil, the three-phase and the two-phase. Both systems generate large amounts of byproducts. The two byproducts produced by the three-phase system are a solid residue known as olive press cake (OPC) and large amounts of aqueous liquid known as olive-mill wastewater (OMW). The three-phase process usually yields 20% olive oil, 30% OPC waste, and 50% OMW. This equates to 80% more waste being produced than actual product.
Regardless of system used, the effluents produced from olive oil production exhibit highly phytotoxic and antimicrobial properties, mainly due to phenols. Phenols are a poisonous caustic crystalline compound. These effluents unless disposed of properly can result in serious environmental damage. There is no general policy for waste management in the olive oil producing nations around the world. This results in inconsistent monitoring and non-uniform application of guidelines across these regions.
State of Affairs
Around 30 million m3 of olive mill wastewater is produced annually in the Mediterranean area. This wastewater cannot be sent to ordinary wastewater treatment systems, thus, safe disposal of this waste is of serious environmental concern. Moreover, due to its complex compounds, olive processing waste (OPW) is not easily biodegradable and needs to be detoxified before it can properly be used in agricultural and other industrial processes.
This poses a serious problem when the sophisticated treatment and detoxification solutions needed are too expensive for developing countries in North Africa, such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, where it is common for OMW to be dumped into rivers and lakes or used for farming irrigation. This results in the contamination of ground water and eutrophication of lakes, rivers and canals. Eutrophication results in reductions in aquatic plants, fish and other animal populations as it promotes excessive growth of algae. As the algae die and decompose, high levels of organic matter and the decomposing organisms deplete the water of oxygen, causing aquatic populations to plummet.
Another common tactic for disposal of olive mill wastewater is to collect and retain it in large evaporation basins or ponds. It is then dried to a semi-solid fraction. In less developed countries where olive processing wastes is disposed of, this waste, as well as olive processing cake and SOR waste is commonly unloaded and spread across the surrounding lands where it sits building up throughout the olive oil production season. Over time these toxic compounds accumulate in the soil, saturating it, and are often transported by rain water to other nearby areas, causing serious hazardous runoff. Because these effluents are generally untreated it leads to land degradation, soil contamination as well as contamination of groundwater and of the water table itself.
Even a small quantity of olive wastewater in contact with groundwater has the potential to cause significant pollution to drinking water sources. The problem is more serious where chlorine is used to disinfect drinking water. Chlorine in contact with phenol reacts to form chlorophenol which is even more dangerous to human health than phenol alone.
The problems associated with olive processing wastes have been extensively studied for the past 50 years. Unfortunately, research has continued to fall short on discovering a technologically feasible, economically viable, and socially acceptable solution to OPW. The most common solutions to date have been strategies of detoxification, production system modification, and recycling and recovery of valuable components. Because the latter results in reductions in the pollution and transformation of OPW into valuable products, it has gained popularity over the past decade. Weed control is a common example of reusing OPW; due to its plant inhibiting characteristics OPW once properly treated can be used as an alternative to chemical weed control.
Research has also been done on using the semisolid waste generated from olive oil production to absorb oil from hazardous oil spills. Finally, in terms of health, studies are suggesting that due to OPW containing high amounts of phenolic compounds, which have high in antioxidant rates, OPW may be an affordable source of natural antioxidants. Still, none of these techniques on an individual basis solve the problem of disposal of OMW to a complete and exhaustive extent.
At the present state of olive mill wastewater treatment technology, industry has shown little interest in supporting any traditional process (physical, chemical, thermal or biological) on a wide scale.This is because of the high investment and operational costs, the short duration of the production period (3-5 months) and the small size of the olive mills.
Overall, the problems associated with olive processing wastes are further exemplified by lack of common policy among the olive oil producing regions, funding and infrastructure for proper treatment and disposal, and a general lack of education on the environmental and health effects caused by olive processing wastes.
While some progress has been made with regards to methods of treatment and detoxification of OPW there is still significant scope for further research. Given the severity of environmental impact of olive processing wastes, it is imperative on policy-makers and industry leaders to undertake more concrete initiatives to develop a sustainable framework to tackle the problem of olive oil waste disposal.
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