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Production of polyhydroxyalkanoates from olive oil mills wastewater

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Making olive oil healthy for the environment too

Olive oil is not only good for human health it is an important sector of the European economy. However, its production has numerous ill effects on the environment which need to be remedied.

Climate Change and Environment

Olive oil, rich in antioxidants not found in other types of oil, is well known for its beneficial health and nutritional effects, including increased protection against certain forms of cancer. With some 95 % of the world’s olive oil produced in Europe, it is also healthy for the European economy. Despite all these benefits, the production of olive oil is not so healthy for the environment. This is mainly because the wastewater produced contains high concentrations of toxic organic and inorganic compounds. Since most olive oil producers are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), a straightforward and cost-effective method of minimising this pollution would be of great value. The EU-funded ‘Production of polyhydroxyalkanoates from olive oil mills wastewater’ (Polyver) project tackled this problem by developing a treatment method that consumes the polluting microorganisms in the wastewater and converts them into commercially exploitable bioplastic monomers. These are biodegradable substitutes for petroleum-based plastics, hence providing multiple environmental benefits. A pilot-scale plant was designed and constructed, with automation of the bioreactor cycle being achieved through a personalised user interface. The pilot managed to produce only at low-yields, which will require improvement before the process can be commercialised. A life-cycle assessment (LCA) also highlighted the need to optimise the technology in terms of the environmental costs of the electricity and solvents used. The water quality resulting from the water purification following polymer recovery was satisfactory, but can be improved further. Despite room for further work, the Polyver technology is industrially exploitable and a good candidate for commercialisation, since the costs of producing the bioplastic monomers were lower than those required for conventional wastewater disposal. Given the project’s commercialisation potential, only limited information has been disseminated widely.

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