Growing Ideas: Citrus peel joins the circular economy

PeelPioneers turn waste peels into valuable ingredients

Why incinerate or ferment citrus rinds when there are so many other possibilities? Rabo Sustainable Innovation Award winners PeelPioneers extract ethereal oils and pulp from the peel, and aims to extract other raw materials in future.

Peelpioneers’ co-founder Sytze van Stempvoort saw that the rising demand for fresh juice meant more and more citrus rinds were being discarded and realized this waste could be upcycled. He studied Chemistry and wrote his thesis about extracting raw materials from citrus peel.

Van Stempvoort started PeelPioneers with Lindy Hensen and Bas van Wieringen a year and a half ago. They now form the management team of this ‘next-gen food waste collector’. Following a successful pilot and with a round of funding now completed, their first factory should be up and running by the end of 2018.

What is PeelPioneers?

Van Stempvoort: “We are a bio-refinery company. In the Netherlands alone, 250 million kilos of citrus peel, mainly from oranges, is thrown away each year. But we can extract the ethereal oils and pulp from the peel. The oils are used as an ingredient in cosmetics and cleaning agents and to flavor foods. The pulp is used in animal feed.

“Our partner collects peels from locations where people can make their own fresh juice or order it, like supermarkets, restaurants and catering establishments. We don’t collect peels from homes as yet because the volumes are too small. But in future, who knows?”

Which problem does it solve?

“Citrus peel is usually incinerated or fermented, which is real waste! Peel is 80% water, so in fact it’s mainly water that is being burned off. PeelPioneers is able to process it into raw materials, contributing to the circular economy.

“Ethereal citrus oil is an important ingredient for cleaning agents thanks to its degreasing properties and pleasant scent. Cleaning with something you would otherwise have thrown in the trash, isn’t that a great example of the circular economy in action?”

“Incinerating citrus peels is a real waste!”

- Sytze van Stempvoort, PeelPioneers

What developments are still to come?

“Once the plant is operational we’ll see what it’s like to process 40,000 kilograms of orange peel on a daily basis. We are developing technologies to extract even more ingredients from the peel. In 2019 and 2020 the focus will be on extracting cellulose, pectin and flavonoids. Cellulose is the raw material for paint and paper. Pectin can be used as thickening agent in jams, and flavonoids are used as an antioxidant in drinks and food supplements.

Initially, we plan to process twenty million kilograms of peel per year. In time, we want to increase our scope and impact. We aim to process more peel, extract more value from it, and make our solution available in more countries, like France, Germany and the UK.”

What’s the effect of winning the Rabo Sustainable Innovation Award?

“Winning the award confirmed that our idea is broadly supported. It was fantastic to win from among such strong competition. Thanks to the exposure generated by the award, we’ve been approached by many organizations wanting to work with us. For example, an ice cream manufacturer wants to use our oils as a natural flavoring for its products. That’s great! Anyone else looking to collaborate, get in touch with us!”