In the tropical landscape of peninsular India, coconut trees form a vital resource in everyday life. From extensive culinary use to generating a wide range of household items as by-products, coconut is virtually indispensable in Southern India.
Consequently, a heap of coconut husks and shells on the roadside – blocking the drainage system, packing up the landfills, or polluting the air when burnt – is not a very rare sight. This is the ugly part of the story. Although biodegradable, coconut husks end up as useless, despite having a horde of potential uses unknown to the urban population. Even in rural areas, coconut residues are finding lesser and lesser usage as fuel or otherwise, courtesy the switch to modernised lifestyle. While India is yet to identify and address this problem, a company in Amsterdam has found a perfect sustainable solution, worthy of replication in coconut-rich nations of South-East Asia. Dutch start-up CocoPallet produces biologically processed transportation pallets from coconut husk. Not only are these 100% organic, greener, cheaper and more compact than wood or plastic pallets, but they are also indirectly preventing the felling of around 200 million trees per year in the Netherlands. Founder Michiel Vos has improvised on the technology originally developed by Wageningen University researchers and created a world-class product with equal finesse and sturdiness, that is boosting a circular economy.
An ancient Indonesian technique
The idea of CocoPallet actually has its root in a primitive Indonesian procedure, practised by only a handful. Jan Van Dam, a plant-fibre scientist at Wageningen University chanced upon this superb technology when a man from Indonesia presented a prototype coconut pallet to him. “Rock hard, wood-like board material from coconut husk? That was new to me,” he shared with Dutch daily ‘de Volkskrant’. Traditionally made from shredded coconut husk processed in steam, the almost forgotten technique was revived by Jan Van Dam and his team in a modern set up.
“We looked for improvements and came up with a technique where the ground up husk is pressed together at a high temperature,” Van Dam explains. The natural lignin in the coir melts and forms the binding material, making it resistant to termites – which is a major problem with wood.
Soon afterwards, he launched a pilot project in the Philippines, which failed for a number of local reasons. The revolutionary technology would have faded into oblivion once again had Michiel Vos not met with Jan Van Dam. “Why don’t you use coconut husk, he asked?…. And anywhere in Asia, it is found almost for free on the side of the road,” recalls Vos about his interaction with Van Dam.
Advantages of CocoPallets
Michiel Vos wasted no time in amplifying the idea into a successful business model and the benefits slowly unfolded over the years. Rarely one comes across a sustainable product with all prominent pros and no cons, but CocoPallet can be called one such product, both environmentally and economically. Made entirely from discarded coconut husk in Asian countries, it negates the use of any toxic and expensive pesticide treatment for the trees like methyl bromide fumigation. Estimates show that they are using almost around 50% of coconut waste.
Thanks to the natural binder lignin, there is no need for any synthetic resins as used in wood pallets. The product is as strong as wood or plastic pallets, supporting a load of up to 3000 kgs. The worn out pallet can be ground into biomass and used as a green fertiliser for agriculture. That is how CocoPallet is supporting a circular economy in itself, asserts founder Vos.
Saving trees & cutting costs
“Asia produces more than a billion pallets every year. They require softwood, which does not grow in the tropics, thus, it is imported from Canada, New Zealand or Eastern Europe on a large scale,” Vos shares with de Volkskrant. This is synonymous to exporting entire forests (200 million trees per year for 1.7 billion wood pallets) to Asia, incurring an enormous freight cost.
CocoPallet is producing the pallets in Sumatra, Indonesia from local plantations, eliminating the whole burden of transport cost. Already popular among Asian exporters, the company is also creating extra income for local farmers.
Global organisations like Accenture and Bloomberg have duly recognised and awarded the innovation. The founder hopes to expand his business further to rid other Asian countries of their coconut waste, in the most eco-friendly way possible.