A spin-off from ETH Zurich is turning olive oil waste into a valuable resource for industry.
One bottle of olive oil generates waste, equivalent to four bottles, consisting of olive peel, pulp, stones and waste water. Worldwide, this amounts to twelve million tonnes a year. Some of this is now being converted into valuable material – antioxidants – which are used to preserve food, creating animal feed, as well as for skincare. This environmentally friendly process was developed by Gaia Tech, Bern, a spin-off of ETH Zurich.
An idea born in Tunisia
One of the founders of Gaia Tech is Claudio Reinhard, who studied mechanical engineering at ETH Zurich. According to ETH News, he travelled to Tunisia to study the effect of plant charcoal on agricultural soils as part of his master's thesis. It was there in North Africa that he encountered the waste problem of olive oil producers. He decided to tackle this problem by reusing most of the waste generated from the olive oil production.
I wanted to find a way to reuse agricultural waste in support of a sustainable circular economy.
On a quest for a more circular economy
Back in Switzerland, Reinhard reached out to food biochemistry specialist Laura Nyström and together they initiated the Phenoliva research project in 2019, which was funded by the EU as a project of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. For three years, they worked with other scientists at ETH Zurich to find out which high-quality ingredients and biocomponents can be found in olive waste and which processes can be used to extract them.
Everything pointed to antioxidants. To extract them, the olive waste is first separated into solid and liquid components by centrifuge. The liquid flows through an absorber specially developed by the researchers. Like a sponge, it absorbs the antioxidants. Before industry can add the antioxidants to its products, the extract must be purified and further processed.
Using antioxidants for cosmetics
Since Gaia Tech was established as a spin-off of ETH Zurich in 2021, various industries have become interested in being supplied with the extracted and purified antioxidants. The cosmetics industry uses antioxidants as active ingredients and preservatives in hair and skin beauty products. Food manufacturers are responding to strong consumer demand to replace synthetic antioxidants, and pet food and feed manufacturers use natural antioxidants to extend the shelf life of their products.
Gaia Tech is currently preparing a pilot production with an agricultural cooperative in San Marino for the upcoming olive harvest. If everything goes to plan, the spin-off would like to scale the technology and transfer it to other promising agricultural waste, for example from coffee or cocoa.