Every year, Italy’s citrus fruit industry produces 700,000 tons of waste. Two ecopreneurs have tapped into the potential of that organic waste – and are turning it into high-quality fabric.
Citrus fruits are healthy and tasty, and the worldwide production of oranges, mandarin and co is steadily increasing. However, in the citrus fruit industry, processing that fruit, e.g. to make it into juices, also generates huge amounts of of waste. In Italy alone, up to 700,000 tons are produced each year. These quantities of waste pose a huge challenge to producers and burden them with high waste management costs. But where else could all of those skins and seeds go?
Two women from Sicily have come up with an answer to that question – and a way to make the fashion industry more sustainable. The textile industry is also constantly growing, and with it so is the industry’s negative imapct on the environment. More and more fashion labels are being set up to bring new ideas to the market under the banner of sustainable fashion and to improve the often inhumane working conditions in the sector. But nevertheless, the fashion industry is still one of the dirtiest in the world, coming in second (just behind oil) when measured in the amount of global CO2 emissions that it creates. Could citrus waste help to change that?
Orange you glad it’s sustainable?
Adriana Santanocito and Enrica Arena developed the idea of using waste from the local citrus fruit industry for fiber production as early as 2011, when they were both still students. Together with Milan Polytechnic, they first carried out a feasibility study and, after its successful completion, applied for a patent for their innovation.
In 2014 they founded their company Orange Fiber and presented the prototype of their citrus cellulose material. The material is made from pastazzo, the Italian term for the fruit pulp and other organic waste that is left over from orange juice production. The pastazzo is processed in order to extract the citrus cellulose and spin it into yarn. The citrus cellulose yarns are made from one hundred percent citrus fruit, but can also be mixed with other materials to make them opaque or shiny. The fabrics, which should feel like silk, can also be dyed and printed.
A closer look at Orange Fiber’s production process shows that production and manufacturing are sustainable from start to finish, in line with the principles of the circular economy: the textile fibres are biodegradable, while the raw materials are obtained from local, recycled and sustainable waste products. The Italian company has won several prizes for its innovative idea, including the Ideas4Change Award of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) in 2015.
They’re not the only ones to have realised that citrus fruit waste doesn’t belong in the bin. The company Favini is also extracting the cellulose from it and using it to produce environmentally friendly paper.
And citrus fruit waste could also have big benefits in other areas, as a team of researchers from Princeton University found out when they made a surprising discovery during field research in Costa Rica. In the 1990s, an orange juice producer had dumped 12,000 tons of orange waste on a cleared area of forest. 20 years later, the area was lush and green, with an increase in biomass of 176 percent, rich soil and a wider variety of tree species than surrounding areas. Examples like these are proof that it’s possible to reframe our understanding of waste. If orange pulp can be used to make fabric, paper and even help reforestation efforts, then who knows how many other opporunities there to are to turn food industry leftovers from a burden into a blessing…
Co-author: Lydia Skrabania