This Is How Palm Oil Is Made

Close up of fresh oil palm fruits

 

slpu9945 / Getty Images

The next time you walk into a grocery store, take a moment to think about the fact that 50 percent of the items you see contain palm oil. Despite its ubiquity and familiar presence on ingredient lists, palm oil is a foreign, tropical product that most North Americans know very little about. Did you ever wonder where it comes from? How it’s grown and processed? Who handles it along the way? Do you know what a palm fruit looks like? Last month, TreeHugger contributing writer Katherine Martinko traveled to Honduras as a guest of the Rainforest Alliance. This list provides an overview of the production process that Katherine saw at Hondupalma, the world’s first certified sustainable palm oil cooperative.

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Mature palm oil plantation

credit: K Martinko

This is a mature palm plantation that’s reaching the end of life. Oil palms are able to produce fruit for harvest within 4 to 6 years of planting, if fertilized well. Life expectancy is 28 to 30 years on average, at which point they are usually 40 feet / 12 metres high and it becomes too hard to harvest the heavy fruit bundles using extension poles. The palms are injected with pesticide, which kills the tree from within, and eventually they get bulldozed in order to make room for new oil palms.

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Palm oil fruit bunches in tree

credit: K Martinko

Palm fruits grow in dense bundles that are wedged tightly in between the branches. This picture shows fruit that isn’t yet ripe. It will eventually turn a brighter red-orange colour.

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Harvesting palm fruit

credit: K Martinko

A worker harvests palm fruit. He must chop off branches in order to dislodge the bundle, which crashes to the ground. Harvesting is physically grueling work and is much easier when palms are smaller and the fruit bunches aren’t as big. This worker harvests approximately 300 bundles a day and earns a salary of 180 Honduras lempiras, which is about $9.40 USD.

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Loading palm fruit

credit: K Martinko

After harvesting, the palm fruit bundles are collected in a cart pulled by a donkey, hauled to the edge of the plantation, and loaded by these workers into a truck. They thrust big metal poles into the centres of the bundles to lift and pitch them.

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Truck containing palm fruit

credit: K Martinko

Palm fruit is delivered to the processing plant belonging to Hondupalma. Trucks drive up a ramp and tip their loads into hoppers that deliver the fruit directly to the steam chambers (see next slide).

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Delivering palm fruit to the processing facility

credit: K Martinko

Trucks brimming with palm fruit line up to deliver their cargo at the Hondupalma processing plant. Sixty percent of the palm fruit processed at this plant comes from plantations owned by Hondupalma cooperative members. The other 40 percent comes from small-holder farmers in the area that are not certified as sustainable.

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Palm oil processing facility

credit: K Martinko

This is the processing plant belonging to Hondupalma, a palm oil cooperative recently certified as sustainable by the Rainforest Alliance. It operates 24 hours a day and shuts down only twice a year for maintenance. This plant produces 60,000 tons of crude oil each year: 45,000 tons are refined on the premises to sell both domestically and internationally, and 15,000 tons are left as crude oil and sold to international brokers.

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Steaming the palm fruits

credit: K Martinko

Palm fruits are extremely hard. When I picked at one with a fingernail, it was nearly impossible to scratch the surface. They must be softened before anything can be done. The first step is to ‘cook’ them for one hour with high-pressure, high-temperature steam (300 psi, 140 degrees Celsius). This picture shows a load of fruit that has just exited the steam chamber.

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Softened palm fruit is ready for pressing

credit: K Martinko

Similar to oranges, palm fruit holds its oil in miniature capsules. After steaming, the capsules break open and the fruit becomes pliable and oily. The steam helps separate the kernel nut from its shell, which is needed to make palm kernel oil.

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Crude palm oil

credit: K Martinko

This is a picture of the crude oil from palm fruit pulp, which makes up approximately 22 percent of a typical palm fruit bundle. At this point, its main use would be for cooking. Palm kernel oil, which is approximately 1.8 percent of a palm fruit bundle, is the more valuable commodity and has a much paler colour than the pulp oil. Kernel oil gets refined and used in ice cream, chocolate, soap, cosmetics, etc.

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Wastewater is pumped into the bio-digester

credit: K Martinko

Water left over from processing contains palm fruit residue, oil, and organic matter. It gets pumped into these huge bio-digesters, which capture the methane gas generated by the decomposition of the sludge and use it to power part of the plant.

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Bio-digesters capture methane

credit: K Martinko

The entire plant requires 2000 kW to operate. Only 30 percent of this, however, is power obtained from the electrical grid. A gas turbine fuelled with the methane from the bio-digesters and a steam turbine driven by the waste process steam (after cooking the palm fruit) generate the remaining 70 percent of the plant’s power requirement.

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Wastewater lagoon

credit: K Martinko

This is the first lagoon where wastewater goes after the methane has been captured in the bio-digester. Hondupalma uses a series of 7 lagoons to treat and clean wastewater. By the time it reaches the end, the water meets municipal testing standards and is discharged into a local river.

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Compost heap provides natural fertilizer

credit: K Martinko

Sludge from the bottom of the bio-digesters is mixed with the leftover woody stems from the palm fruit bunches at a 4:1 ratio. Hondupalma’s composting project uses only 10 percent of its leftover bunches, since the rest are sold on contract to nearby textile factories, but it still produces 10,000 tons of compost annually. This is sold back to cooperative members for 25 lempiras ($1.30 USD) per 100-lb bag and is used to fertilize oil palms located in sensitive areas where synthetic fertilizers aren’t allowed, i.e. near waterways.