How Discarded Orange Peels Transformed a Barren Landscape Into a Lush Forest
By Marlene Cimons
Orange isn't just the new black. It's also the new green. Twenty years ago, an orange juice producer dumped thousands of tons of orange peels and pulp onto a barren section of a Costa Rican national park, which has since transformed into a lush, vine-laden woodland. The shift is a dramatic illustration of how agricultural waste can regenerate a forest and sequester vast sums of carbon—for free.
Even more remarkable, it was an accident.
"I was totally floored," said Timothy Treuer, a Princeton University researcher and lead author of a new study published in the journal Restoration Ecology about the rejuvenated forest. "The area that received the orange peels was divided from the [area that did not receive the peels] by a single track dirt road, but the two areas looked like completely different ecosystems."
On one side was a pasture "with a few scattered scraggly trees," he said. On the other, "was an overgrown jungle, so lush it required a machete to move through. Once I was done picking my jaw up off the ground, I realized that I was looking at something truly special. It blew my mind."
Scientists have long worried about the impact of food production on climate change. So they are devising new ways to use food waste that might otherwise end up in a landfill, where it would decompose into methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The goal is to create new products from the waste, whether they be foods, clothes, farms or—in this case—forest.
"Tropical forests are a part of our species' collective cultural and natural heritage," said Jonathan Choi, a co-author who studied the region while a senior at Princeton University majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. "While we obviously want to protect every forest that remains on this planet, the idea that we might be able to help regrow the forest that we've lost in a way that saves everyone money is exciting."
Here's what happened.
During the 1990s, 1,000 truckloads of peels and pulp amounting to 12,000 metric tons were deposited as part of a deal struck with Del Oro, an orange juice manufacturer that had just begun production along a northern border of Costa Rica's Área de Conservación Guanacaste, a national park.
In the mid-1990s, 1,000 truckloads of orange peels and pulp were unloaded onto a barren pasture in a Costa Rican national park. Today, that area is covered in forest.Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs / University of Pennsylvania
A husband and wife team, Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs, both ecologists at the University of Pennsylvania—who also worked in the park as researchers and technical advisers—offered the company the opportunity to dump their orange waste on degraded land if Del Oro would donate part of their own forested land to the national park. The company, which had considered building an expensive facility to safely deal with the waste, readily agreed. After first extracting the oils and acids—which are commercially valuable in household cleaning products—the process began.
But, a year after the contract was signed—and the peels and pulp were left on the land—a rival fruit company, TicoFruit, sued to stop the process, arguing that Del Oro had "defiled a national park." The Costa Rican Supreme Court agreed, halting the dumping. The land was pretty much forgotten over the ensuing years.
In 2013, while Treuer was discussing possible research projects with Janzen, they talked about the site in Costa Rica, wondering whether it was time to take look. On a subsequent research trip to Costa Rica, Treuer decided to stop by.
"It took me two trips to the site to actually figure out where it was," he recalled. "It didn't help that the six foot long sign with bright yellow lettering marking the site was so overgrown with vines that we literally didn't find it until years later after dozens and dozens of site visits."
The research team evaluated two sets of soil samples to determine whether the orange peels were responsible for enriching the soil's nutrients. "Essentially we took a measuring tape, stretched it out 100 meters, and measured and identified every tree with three meters of the tape," Treuer explained. "We did this three times in the fertilized area, laying the tape out in parallel lines 25 meters apart, and three times in the unfertilized area on the other side of the dirt road."
They looked at changes in tree growth and soil nutrients between the orange peel site and an abandoned pasture that was 100 yards away. They found dramatic differences between the two studied areas; the land fertilized by the orange peels had richer soil, more tree biomass, a greater variety of tree species and a larger forest canopy closure.
Orange peels and pulp left nutrients in the soil. Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs / University of Pennsylvania
"One of the most surprising results of our tree survey was the number, size and diversity of trees in the area treated with orange peels," Treuer said. "I was expecting a field of Cecropia—a fast-growing 'pioneer' species that often pops up along roadsides and heavily disturbed areas—but two of the most common species were [those] associated with old-growth forests. One of the fig trees we measured was already so large it would have taken three people to wrap their arms all the way around it.
"The diversity was even more striking when compared to the control area that hadn't been treated with orange peels, where just two pasture-associated species made up the vast majority of trees," he added.
How did the orange peels work their magic?
"That's the million dollar question that we don't yet have the answer to," Treuer said. "I strongly suspect that it was some synergy between suppression of the invasive grass and rejuvenation of heavily degraded soils. There's plenty of evidence of both of those factors limiting forest recovery in other parts of the tropics."
Choi agreed. "We'll unfortunately never know what the exact mechanisms for regrowth were in this system, given that we don't have data from before the oranges," he said. "But we imagine that putting this amount of orange peel on the system both infused a ton of nutrients into the soil, and suppressed an invasive grass that was preventing the growth of additional trees."
The researchers hope that the insights gained from this unintentional experiment will inspire more collaboration in the future between the private sector and the environmental community.
"We live in a paradoxical world where nutrient starved degraded lands and nutrient-rich waste streams occur simultaneously," Treuer said. "Resolving that paradox means profits for private industry, more resources for conservation areas, and potentially gigatonnes of climate change-causing gases getting sucked out of the atmosphere.
"This wasn't just a win-win partnership between a business and a park," he added. "It turned out to be a win-win-win blueprint, where the biggest winners are everyone who cares about handing off as healthy and robust an environment to their kids as they inherited from their parents."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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