Waste Not
On Top of Everything Else, Palm Oil Production Creating Methane-Rich Wastewater

The fact that palm oil production — as the biggest driver of deforestation in Southeast Asia and parts of Africa and South America — is responsible for the rampant release of carbon emissions and the destruction of vital habitats for endangered species such as orangutans and the Sumatran tiger is more than enough cause to drive NGOs into action against the culprits. But now researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder (CUB) have discovered yet another reason to be concerned about palm oil’s environmental impact.

A study published late last month in the journal Nature Climate Change revealed that the wastewater produced during the palm oil production process is a significant source of heat-trapping methane in the atmosphere. According to the analysis, the methane bubbling up from a single palm oil wastewater lagoon in a year is roughly equivalent to the emissions from 22,000 passenger vehicles. This year, global methane emissions from palm oil wastewater are expected to equal 30 percent of all fossil-fuel emissions from Indonesia.

According to the WWF: “A palm oil mill generates 2.5 metric tons of effluent for every metric ton of palm oil it produces. Direct release of this effluent can cause freshwater pollution, which affects downstream biodiversity and people. When POME [palm oil mill effluent] is not released directly into rivers it is often discarded into disposal ponds, its contaminants polluting the soil and groundwater and releasing methane gas into the atmosphere.”

The CUB report isn’t all doom and gloom — it also points out the potential for capturing the methane for energy use. The researchers estimate the amount of methane that went uncollected from palm oil wastewater lagoons last year alone could have been converted to biogas and met a quarter of Malaysia’s electricity needs.

“This is a largely overlooked dimension of palm oil’s environmental problems,” said lead author Philip Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher at CUB’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR). “The industry has become a poster child for agriculture’s downsides, but capturing wastewater methane leaks for energy would be a step in the right direction.”

Palm oil is used in thousands of products that Americans eat and use daily, including deodorants, toothpaste, ice cream and face creams. The global demand for palm oil has spiked in recent years as processed food manufacturers have sought an alternative to trans fats. For now, the carbon footprint of clearing forests to make way for palm plantations dwarfs the greenhouse gases coming from the wastewater lagoons. But even as the outlook continues to brighten for palm oil-related deforestation — as of GAR’s pledge last week, more than half of the world’s palm oil is now backed by zero-deforestation commitments — the CUB researchers say emissions from wastewater lagoons will continue unabated as long as palm oil is produced. The researchers point out that capturing methane at wastewater lagoons could be encouraged by making it a requirement before palm oil products can be certified as sustainable; current sustainability certifications do not address wastewater emissions.

In addition to its increasingly widespread application as a biofuel, enterprising companies continue to find new uses for methane: California-based startup Newlight Technologies, for example, is using captured methane gas from dairy farms and turning it into AirCarbon, a durable and versatile plastic that can be used in everything from furniture and food containers to auto parts.

Meanwhile, cities in places from New York to the Netherlands, and companies in industries ranging from energy to marijuana farming to beer brewing, are reaping an array of cost- and footprint-reducing benefits from wastewater treatment.

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