What Happens When You Dump 12,000 Tons of Orange Peel in a Costa Rican Jungle?

A juicy discovery: the discarded orange waste has brought a barren area back to life.

20 years after an orange juice manufacturer dumped tons of peel and pulp on a patch of barren land, researchers are stunned by what they've found.

Author Laura Wagener:

Translation Laura Wagener, 09.18.17

It all started back in the 1990s, when a husband-and wife couple, both ecologists at the University of Pennsylvania, set out to help protect a national park in Costa Rica, the Àrea de Conservación Guanacaste. Sections of the park had been damaged by overgrazing and deforestation and become barren, so Daniel Janzen und Winnie Hallwachs decided to off the nearby orange juice manufacturer, Del Oro, an interesting deal: if the company would donate its part of forest land to the park, they would, in return, be able to use a section of the park as a rubbish dump for their huge amounts of organic waste.

Del Oro agreed and was allowed to regularly offload its orange waste on an area that was roughly the size of four football fields. A year later, however, the deal came to an abrupt end after Del Oro’s competitor, TicoFruit, took them to court for contaminating a national park – and won. The 12,000 tons of orange waste was never removed, and eventually was forgotten about.

Re-Discovery and Reforestation

It was only 15 years later, when Timothy Treuer of Princeton University was looking for a topic for his master’s thesis, that the place was re-examined. On a fieldwork trip through Costa Rica, he decided to pay the place a visit, and could hardly believe his eyes: “It was so completely overgrown with trees and vines that I couldn’t even see the 7-foot-long sign with bright yellow lettering marking the site that was only a few feet from the road,” says Treuer, remembering the first time he saw the site of his future research project.

Lead by David Wilcove, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton Environmental Institute, Treuer and his fellow student Jonathan Choi took a detailed scientific look at the effect the organic waste had had on the ground, in addition to the obvious effects it had had on the surface: “While I would walk over exposed rock and dead grass in the nearby fields, I’d have to climb through undergrowth and cut paths through walls of vines in the orange peel site itself.”

© Princeton University, Tim Treuer Eine sichtbare Grenze verläuft zwischen dem Orangenacker und dem Gebiet links daneben.

The results? The analysis of the plants and the soil samples showed that while nearby areas were still severely eroded, the “orange grove” had richer soil, significantly more biomass and a richer variety of tree species. The biologists ended up registering a biomass growth of 176 per cent!

Organic Waste: The Future of the Rainforest?

This unexpected effect of organic waste on eroded soil sets an interesting precedent. A way to dispose of waste that results in reduced carbon emissions and reforestsion – and is cost-effective for the waste producers too – could be a real game changer for the food industry.

Talking about the discovery, the paper’s co-author David Wilcove summed up its potential by saying:

“Plenty of environmental problems are produced by companies, which, to be fair, are simply producing the things people need or want. But an awful lot of those problems can be alleviated if the private sector and the environmental community work together. I’m confident we’ll find many more opportunities to use the ‘leftovers’ from industrial food production to bring back tropical forests. That’s recycling at its best.”

This article is a translation by Marisa Pettit of the original article which first appeared on RESET’s German-language site.

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