Is Recycling of Agro-Waste:a Trend or a Threat?

Reporters/ An-Ting Chen, Chia-Ni Chang, Ka-Lam Fong, Xian-Ying Lee

Taiwan, known for its subtropical position and diverse topography, is blessed with an abundance of high quality agricultural products. However, the increase in agriculture waste production has led to a significant  increase in agricultural waste. According to the Council of Agriculture’s statistics, agricultural waste in Taiwan reached 4.96 million metric tons in 2021, with most of them disposed by tilling, burying on site and composting. Recycling of agricultural waste has therefore become an important issue due to the increased environmental awareness throughout the society.

Pineapple leaf is one of Taiwan’s main agricultural wastes. Photo/Chia-Ni Chang

Agro-Waste Creates Valuable Daily Products

As a fruit kingdom, Taiwan produces between 400,000 and 500,000 tons of pineapples every year, which is the leading fruit production in the country. Lin, Chi-fu, director of Tainan Nanxi Fuyong Fruit and Vegetable Marketing Cooperative, shared that March to July is the season of pineapple production. Most pineapples are exported to foreign countries while some are made into dried fruit. Moreover, pineapple leaves are tilled and buried underground to decompose naturally.

Recently, in face of a large number of useless pineapple leaves, the textile industry has turned them into yarn by using wool spinning technology to create fabric. Pineapple leaf fiber is durable and the fabric has a linen-like cool and airy texture. This seemingly beautiful result of transforming pineapple leaves from agricultural waste to an important raw material for textile garments actually took three years of research and effort to accomplish. According to Guo, Ming-song, chairman of the textile industry, although fibers are mostly extracted manually in Southeast Asia, Taiwan boasts of more advanced pineapple leaf fiber extraction technology.  Its semi-automatic machine fiber extraction can produce up to 60 kg of fiber per hour.

Pineapple leaf fiber is a new raw material for textile industry. Photo/Chia-Ni Chang

However, the cost of 1 kg of pineapple leaves fiber is as high as NT$1,800 as the fiber extraction rate of pineapple leaves is between 1.5% and 2%, and the fiber extraction machine is not yet fully automated. Guo hoped that the price of pineapple leaf fibers could be lower through the mass production of the fibers in the future. With more and more pineapple fabric apparel in the market, coupled with the fact that pineapple fabric is UV resistant, Guo pointed out that many international brands are interested in recycling agricultural waste, which is bound to become a trend in the future.

In addition, other agricultural wastes such as sugarcane bagasse and coffee grounds can also be recycled to make plant-based tableware. Hank Zeng, marketing specialist of Materials Research and Development Corporation, elaborated on the manufacturing process of sugarcane bagasse tableware by saying that sugarcane bagasse has a moisture content of 50% which after squeezing will cause more carbon emissions during transportation. Therefore, the bagasse must be sent to a farm or a glasshouse for drying. He added that the bagasse will only be converted into plastic pellets when its moisture content is between 10% to 15% to make tableware in the factory.

Water content needs to be extracted from plant fibers before using. Photo provided by/Hank Zeng

Zeng stressed that the selection of raw materials turning into new products depends on the major crops of the country. For example, there is no need to worry about the shortage of raw materials in Taiwan as its sugarcane production is high. Besides, the bagasse meets food-grade standards and does not contain any harmful substances. In addition, Zeng mentioned that turning agricultural waste into valuable products entails a high cost of investment. He said that the company mainly exports plant-based tableware to countries and regions with stricter laws and regulations  prohibiting the use of plastics, such as Australia and the European Union.

Improved Recycling System Waste Reduction

Lin, Yi-chun, researcher of Taiwan Watch Institute, said that many plant-based tableware on the market contains PLA, which is a biodegradable plastic that can only be decomposed in the form of industrial composting. Wang, Environmental Technical Specialist representative of the Recycling Fund Management Board (RFMB) of the Environmental Protection Agency, explained that industrial composting requires special equipment for processing, but it is impossible to establish a complete professional composting plant such as the one in the United States due to Taiwan’s current limited technology and land area. The disposing method for plant-based tableware with added PLA can only be  crushed into waste, which is then converted into relatively less polluting energy, but it still cannot be recycled.

According to the United Nations’ Environment Programme (UNEP), the world produces 460 million tons of plastic products every year. Its latest report, “2023 Plastic Waste Producers Index”, shows that the total amount of global single-use plastic waste set another record high, adding 6 million metric tons in 2021 compared to that of 2019, bringing the total amount to about 137 million tons. Although the rate of increase in single-use plastics has slowed slightly, it is still expected to increase by 17 million tons in 2027.

Agro-waste is used to make plant-based tableware. Photo provided by/Hank Zeng

Do people prefer plastic tableware to plant-based tableware? Hsieh, Her-lin,  secretary-general of Taiwan Watch, said that the public often choose to use single-use tableware because of its convenience be it plastic tableware or plant-based tableware. He emphasized that people will only be able to solve these problems when they refrain from such behavior. The manufacturing process of tableware consumes energy and water resources which are not environmentally friendly regardless of whether the material of alternative tableware is conducive or not.

Furthermore, European Union‘s European Waste Hierarchy shows a top-down approach in waste management that is divided into five stages, with the priority order being Prevention, Reuse, Recycling, Recovery and Disposal. Lin, Yi-chun’s idea coincides with this solid waste treatment pyramid. He believed that for the sake of the environment and to solve the problem of waste volume, the public should start changing their fundamental behavior and implement source reduction instead of seeking quick decomposition methods.

European Waste Hierarchy is a top-down approach in waste management. Photo/An-Ting Chen

Industries maintain a positive mindset about the product formed by agro-waste while NGO and the government consider its subsequent impact on the environment and ecology. Whether agricultural waste recycling is a trend or a threat, it is still open for further discussions. But one thing for sure, improving the environment and making the earth sustainable is the goal of many in this industry.

Advances in technology make it possible to use whole pineapple as raw material. Photo/Chia-Ni Chang
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