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Oil Palm & The Environment (updated March 2014) PDF Print E-mail

              CONTENTS

Upstream

Downstream

              Introduction

The development of oil palm in Malaysia has been remarkable. Starting off as ornamental, the crop has developed into a multibillion ringgit industry. In Africa, the crop originally existed wild in the groves and various constraints were faced in the efforts towards domestication. It is in Malaysia that much of the crop's full potential has been exploited. This transformation from the wild to being domesticated, where it is grown in neat rows in well-managed plantations, has not been without cost. A lot effort has gone into understanding this 'new' crop, and the means of fitting it to its new home.

It has been during the development of this crop that more has been learnt about its interaction with the environment. Success in developing the crop in plantations has led to a new challenge i.e. in the processing technology. Again, being the pioneer, Malaysia has had to take the lead in this new endeavour. Technologies both upstream and downstream, including those related to the environment were developed and were continually improved.

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Upstream

Growth Of The Industry With Global Initiatives Of Business Sustainability Of The Industry With Local Effort

              

 
 

Hectarage of oil palm in Malaysia

Year                Hectarage        % Change

1871-1910s               <350               -

1920                            400               -

1930                       20 000               -

1940                       31 400               -

1950                       38 800               -

1960                       54 838             0.0   

1965                       96 945            77.4

1970                      261 199         169.4

1975                      641 791         145.7

1980                   1 023 306           59.4

1985                   1 482 399           44.9

1990                   2 094 028           41.3 

1995                   2 540 087           21.3

2000                   3 376 664           32.9

2005                   4 051 374           20.0

2010                   4 853 766           19.8

2011                   5 000 109             3.0

 (Source: MPOB, Malaysian Oil Palm Statistics)

 

Number   Palm Oil Mills in Malaysia

Year       Capacity (Million Tonnes FFB/year)

1980        149                 13.33

1985        229                 21.43

1990        261                 31.03

1995        281                 42.20

2000        350                 65.95

2005        395                 84.11               

2010        421                 97.38

2011        426                 99.85

(Source:MPOB, Malaysian Palm Oil Statistics,

 2012)

 
 

Palm Oil Refineries in Malaysia

Year  Number Capacity (Million tonnes CPO/yr)

1980      45                         2.84

1985      38                         5.35

1990      37                       10.45

1995      41                       10.15

2000      46                       14.60

2005      48                       17.31

2010      51                       22.89

2011      56                       24.97

(Source: MPOB, Malaysian Palm Oil Statistics)

The growth of the palm industry in Malaysia has been phenomenal. From a mere 400 hectares planted in 1920, the hectarage increased to 54 000 hectares in 1960. Since then many more areas have been opened up for oil palm cultivation, either from virgin jungles, or from the conversion of plantations that originally supported rubber or other crops.

This increase in hectarage is a direct consequence of the government's policy on crop diversification. By 1996, the hectarage under oil palm stood at a staggering 2.6 million hectares. By 2005 and 2010 the percentage change in the areas under oil palm was around 20% for each five-year period. In 2011, the hectarage reached 5 million hectares, and the change in area in 2011 was only three percent as compared to 2010. This rapid growth in oil palm planting has been seen in five-year period 1965 – 1970; 1970 – 1975, and even in 1975 – 1980, due to the crop diversification programme. It also saw a corresponding growth in the milling and refining sectors. Encouraged further by the government’s incentive to exploit the country's rich agro-based resources, oleochemical processing from palm oil and palm kernel oil began to gain prominence in 1980's.

A rapid increase in both downstream and upstream activities would normally have resulted in significant environmental pollution.  This however was not the case with oil palm. In the early years of oil palm development, certain practices such as open burning and pollution of water ways by oil palm mill had an impact on the environment. Nonetheless the industry has moved ahead and has greatly improved its environmental friendliness. Laws and regulations have been enacted to this effect, in order to prohibit and control such activities. As an industry, oil palm takes pride in its initiatives to improve its environmental friendliness.

Since the talk on the climate started in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the Earth Summit in 1992 and again in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012, dubbed as the Rio+20 Review, the focus has been on sustainability. Sustainable development is taken to mean equal effort being devoted to economic growth and social welfare, as well as to environmental outcomes. In other words sustainable growth with equity would mean eradicating poverty, as well as preserving the environment, as underlined by the outcomes of the Rio+20 Conference.

This shows that the R&D effort of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) has not slowed down, but has been strengthened by adhering stringently to the outcomes of the annually held United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations. This requires the palm oil industry to tackle the challenges in meeting the growing worldwide demand for palm oil as food, while at the same time has to demonstrate the sustainability of its products and operations. Sustainability has more than just environment to deal with. Its ambit of influence can also reach out to businesses, treat their employees and relate to the communities in which they operate.

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              Meeting the World's Demand for Oils & Fats

 
 WorldProduction
 

The world's demand for oils and fats is being met by 17 major sources. Palm oil, is the largest, in terms of total production and is the number one player in the oils and fats trade. In 2011/12, it controlled 57.7% of the export market share. The most efficient among the oil crops is oil palm which commands a yield/ha that is almost 10 times higher than that of soya bean; 6.9 times than sunflower seed and 6.3 times than that of rapeseed. These four sources accounted for 72% of the vegetable oil produced in 2011/12.

Oil palm, without question, hectare for hectare, is the most efficient in terms of having the highest yield per hectare. Moreover, being a perennial, the supply of palm oil is reliable, as the crop is not easily affected by the vagaries of the weather and other calamities.

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              Biodiversity


 
 
 

Malaysia can boast that 56% of its land mass of 32.86 million hectares is under permanent natural forest cover. This exceeds that of many other developed countries, which have less than 30% forests. Thus, in terms of wild life conservation, there are ample forests to protect and conserve wild life.

There is no denying the fact that the conversion of virgin forests to any commercial venture, (oil palm cultivation included), would in one way or another have an impact on the environment. Perhaps of greatest concern is the loss of biodiversity, in relation to species composition of both plant and animal populations. This is especially true for a monoculture system such as oil palm, where the diversity of flora and fauna is severely restricted.

Realizing the danger of the possible loss of biodiversity and in being committed to the preservation of the myriad of rich flora and fauna, the government has taken steps to set aside 2.1 million hectares of the 19.37 million hectares, under forest, for nature parks, wildlife reserves, bird sanctuaries and marine parks. These areas, well spread out throughout the country and protected by law, ensure the preservation of biodiversity unique to Malaysia.

During the period 2004-2010, MPOB conducted a full life cycle assessment (LCA) of the Malaysian palm oil from the nursery to palm biodiesel. It was a cradle-to-grave analysis starting from the oil palm seedling, to the production and use of palm biodiesel. It has been demonstrated that the total greenhouse gas (GHG) saving with biogas capture is about 76%, which far exceeds the 2018 requirements of 60%, set by Renewable Energy Directive (RED) of the European Commission (EC).

 

 

 GHGEmission

 TotalSavings

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              Carbon Dioxide Balance & Plantation Practices

 

Carbon Dioxide Balance

Oil palm cultivation per se, constituting 16% of the 32.86 million hectares of the total land mass of Malaysia, is generally of little threat to the environment. The oil palm plantation, a perennial with closed canopy, also stores carbon, both above and below the ground. Playing no small role in carbon dioxide (CO2 ) balance and carbon fixation, a plantation may accumulate 100-120 tonnes of biomass per hectare by maturity.

 Over the whole supply chain, it has been demonstrated by the full LCA study, that for every tonne of palm oil produced the amount of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions expended is about half a tonne; indicating that the palm oil industry is that of a low carbon economy.

 All these savings in GHG emissions have been due to the implementation of the best practices. To be sustainable, MPOB has been guiding the industry to experiment with the following mixture of best practices and new approaches. These innovations are listed  below.

Plantation Best Practices

The aim is to farm, in harmony with nature, rather than against it. Invariably with this approach, there would be better returns with negligible impact on the environment.

 The positive intrinsic attributes are further enhanced by commendable plantation practices sensitive to environmental conservation. The adoption of zero burning during replanting ensures not only an environment free from smoke pollution, but also one capable of returning the organic matter to the soil. The planting of cover crops, the construction of terraces and silt pits, the correct placement of frond piles, and mulching with empty fruit bunches are additional practices aimed at minimizing environmental degradation. Evidences are aplenty where such practices have been shown to drastically reduce erosion, leaching and runoff.

 As shown in an earlier section, the conservation of biodiversity through the protection of wild life on the ground has been emphasised. In actual fact, the focus should be on the biodiversity in the soil, which is greater than those on and above the soil. Any increase in soil fertility will help reduce input such as fertilisers and chemicals. This again is a better approach, if we focus on increasing soil biodiversity. By increasing the biodiversity in the soil, it is likely that the ecosystem function and services of the environment will be vastly improved, where the palm is grown. 

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              Nutrient Recycling & Fertilizer Requirement

 
 

 
 PillingFronds

Nutrient Recycling

Nutrient recycling provided by cover crops, cut fronds, empty fruit brunches and palm oil mill effluent (POME) has already been well documented (for example, one tonne of pruned fronds can return an equivalent of 7.5 kg nitrogen, 106 kg phosphorus, 9.81 kg potassium and 2.79 kg magnesium to the soil. A total of 10 tonnes pruned fronds are produced per hectare per year.) This practice of biomass recycling not only saves on fertilizer cost, but more importantly goes a long way towards environmental conservation, by reducing dependence on fossil fuel required for the manufacture of inorganic fertilizer.

 

Fertilizer Requirements

 Though the nutrient requirement is partly provided by the recycling of biomass, oil palm undeniably also requires inorganic fertilizers. This is true to all crop plants. Being a very expensive management input, fertilizer application in an oil palm plantation has to be carried out judiciously. In preparing fertilizer recommendations, the soils, plant and environment factors have to be taken into consideration. This is to ensure optimum dosage. Backed by many decades of research findings, the nutrient need for oil palm has been well worked out. Indeed, the nutrient requirement for oil palm compares favourably with other crops such as wheat, barley, winter rape, sugar beet and grape.

 

 

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              Energy Balance

 

Oil palm leads many other crops in terms of energy balance. From a total input energy of 19.2 GJ/ha/year, oil palm gives products with total energy of 182.1 GJ/ha/year. This high output: input ratio of 9.5 times is achievable by only a few other agricultural systems. For comparison, similar ratios for soya bean and rapeseed are only 2.5 and 3.0 respectively. This high energy balance reflects both crops efficiency and reduces reliance on fossil fuels, a big step towards environmental conservation.

 

Besides fertilizers, other chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and rat baits consume very little total energy input. The integrated management of pests, diseases and weeds combining both biological and cultural practices put reliance on these chemicals to a minimum.

 

Examples include the use of livestock to control weeds; biological control of insect pests with predators and parasitoids; disease control through cultural management; rat control with barn owls and accepted practice of allowing soft weeds to thrive in the plantation.

 

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Downstream

              Mill Effluent

 

CHARACTERISTICS OF POME

Parameter*

Mean

Range

pH

4.2

3.4 - 5.2

Biological Oxygen Demand 

25000

10250 - 43750

Chemical Oxygen Demand 

51000

15000 - 100000

Total Solids

40000

11500 - 79000

Suspended Solids

18000

5000 - 54000

Volatile Solids

34000

9000 - 72000

Oil and Grease

6000

130 - 18000

Ammoniacal Nitrogen

35

4 - 80

Total Nitrogen

750

180 - 1400

*Units in mg/l except pH

Aerobic Ponds with Surface
Mechanical Aerators

An Effluent Pond

The processing of oil palm fresh fruit bunches (FFB) primarily for palm oil also results in the production of wastes, in the form of palm oil mill effluent (POME), empty fruit bunches, mesocarp fibre and shell. When the industry was at its infancy in the 1960's, ignorance compelled us to dispose POME into the waterways or to adopt other methods at our convenience. The problem of pollution accruing from a mere 92,000 tonnes of production by only 10 mills was not apparent then. The environment could somehow absorb these wastes.


Effluent Treatment Plant

 

This lackadaisical attitude did not last long. By the 1970's the growth of the industry was literally exponential, bringing along with it pollution, which the waterways could no longer handle – so much so that palm oil processing became synonymous with POME pollution. Tonne for tonne, the oxygen depleting potential of POME is 100 times that of domestic sewage. The industry thus faced a major problem, as it virtually lacked any proven technology to treat POME.


Anaerobic Tank Digesters

In being committed to overcome the problem, the government and the industry worked together to source for treatment technologies that were environmentally and economically sound. Unfortunately, none was available anywhere in the world then, to specifically treat POME. The government-industry synergy towards a common goal-pollution abatement therefore paid off handsomely. Systems for the treatment of organic industrial wastes were successfully adapted for POME treatment. The three most commonly used systems were the ponding system, open tank digester and the extended aeration system, and the closed anaerobic digester and land application systems.

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              Environmental Quality Regulations

 

PALM OIL MILL EFFLUENT DISCHARGE STANDARDS

Parameter*

Limits According to Periods of Discharge

1/7/78
-
30/6/79

1/7/79
-
30/6/80

1/7/80
-
30/6/81

1/7/81
-
30/6/82

1/7/82
-
31/12/83

1/1/84
&
thereafter

pH

5 - 9

5 - 9

5 - 9

5 - 9

5 - 9

5 - 9

Biological Oxygen Demand 

5000

2000

1000

500

250

100

Chemical Oxygen Demand

10000

4000

2000

1000

-

-

Total Solids

4000

2500

2000

1500

-

-

Suspended Solids

1200

800

600

400

400

400

Oil and Grease

150

100

75

50

50

50

Ammoniacal Nitrogen

25

15

15

10

150

100

Total Nitrogen

200

100

75

50

-

-

Temperature (°C)

45

45

45

45

45

45

*Units in mg/l except pH and temperature

 

The year 1978 witnessed the enactment of the Environmental Quality Regulations detailing POME discharge standards. BOD was the key parameter in the standards. From the initial BOD of 25 000 ppm of the untreated POME, the load was reduced to 5 000 ppm in the first generation of discharge standard, down to the present BOD of 100ppm. Efforts are in progress to move down to 50ppm, and in places where discharge into water ways is needed, R&D is actively pursued to reduce the BOD load to 20ppm.

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              By-Products of Milling

 

The bold step taken by the industry has paid dividends in two distinct ways: firstly, the unequivocal pollution abatement culminated in cleaner waterways, and secondly, the emergence of various by-products has resulted from the treatment systems. POME, either in its raw or treated forms, contains a high level of plant nutrients. When the BOD level is brought down to below 5,000 ppm, the digested POME is allowed for land application. Studies by various groups have demonstrated that such an application has been beneficial to oil palm, besides the saving on fertilizer cost extensively. Long term studies have also established that water quality of the applied area has not been affected.

 

 

Flaring of Biogas

 

Biogas Storage

 

The advancement in treatment technology has also seen the introduction of the decanter-drier system. This system has reduced the volume of clarification sludge by 75%, while at the same time solid from POME using a rotary drier has also been harnessed. The drier obtained its heat from the boiler exhaust gas. The system, while reducing the volume of effluent has also helped reduce the problem of air pollution. The dried solids have been used as soil conditioners and animal feeds.

 

 

 

Application of Treated Effluent

 

Empty fruit Bunches

 

The anaerobic digestion of POME produces another valuable product, that is biogas. It is estimated that about 20 000 cubic meters of biogas can be obtained per day from 60 tonne FFB per hour mill operating for 20 hours. The biogas has a calorific value of 53 000 kcal per cubic metre. Substantial savings on fuel can be obtained when the biogas is harnessed for heat and electricity generation. Other solid wastes such as mesocarp fibres and shells are the main sources of energy in the palm oil mills. Together, they can produce sufficient energy to meet the mills energy requirements.

 

ANNUAL FERTILIZER EQUIVALENTS OF DIFFERENT TYPES OF POME PRODUCED BY A 60 TONNE FFB/hr MILL

-Fertilizer

Raw Effluent

Digested Effluent

Ditch Supernatant 

Tonnes

RM

Tonnes

RM

Tonnes

RM

Ammonium Sulphate

761

266 350

685

239 750

343

120 050

Rock Phosphate

292

71 540

221

54 271

71

17 395

Muriate of Potash

713

249 550

563

197 050

375

131 250

Kieserite

563

212 814

446

168 784

272

102 816

Limestone Dust

220

11 660

188

9 994

98

5 194

-

-

811,914

-

669,849

-

376,705

 

TYPES OF POME AVAILABLE AND THEIR CHEMICAL COMPOSITION

Type of POME

BOD

N

P

K

Mg

Raw

25000

948

154

1958

345

Digested (Anaerobic)

a. Stirred Tank

1300

900

120

1800

300

b. Supernatant (Ditch)

450

450

70

1200

280

c. Botton Slurry (Tank)

1000 - 3000

3552

1180

2387

1509

Digested (Aerobic)

a. Supernatant

100

52

12

2300

539

b. Bottom Slurry

150 - 300

1495

461

2378

1004

Units in mg/l

 

The empty fruit bunches (EFB), have traditionally been burnt and their ash recycled into the plantation as fertilizer. However, due to the pollution problem, the incineration of EFB has been discouraged. Instead EFB is returned to the field to act as mulch.

 

 

Palm Fibres

 

Palm Shell

 

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              Conclusion

It is apparent that the oil palm industry is eco-friendly in every aspect of its activities. There may be occasional reports of incidences of environmental transgressions, but when this happens, perpetrators will be subjected to legal action. The achievement in controlling POME pollution bears testimony to the seriousness of both the government and the private sector to see a greener Malaysia. Together they have formed a synergistic teamwork that tackles the problem in record time. Indeed, the solution to the POME problem has paved the way for the growth of the industry to what it is today.

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Carbon Dioxide Balance

 

Oil palm cultivation per se, constituting 16% of the 32.86 million hectares of the total land mass of Malaysia, is generally of little threat to the environment. The oil palm plantation, a perennial with closed canopy, also stores carbon, both above and below the ground. Playing no small role in carbon dioxide (CO2 ) balance and carbon fixation, a plantation may accumulate 100-120 tonnes of biomass per hectare by maturity.

 

Over the whole supply chain, it has been demonstrated by the full LCA study, that for every tonne of palm oil produced the amount of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions expended is about half a tonne; indicating that the palm oil industry is that of a low carbon economy.

All these savings in GHG emissions have been due to the implementation of the best practices. To be sustainable, MPOB has been guiding the industry to experiment with the following mixture of best practices and new approaches. These innovations are listed  below.

 

Plantation Best Practices

 

The aim is to farm, in harmony with nature, rather than against it. Invariably with this approach, there would be better returns with negligible impact on the environment.

The positive intrinsic attributes are further enhanced by commendable plantation practices sensitive to environmental conservation. The adoption of zero burning during replanting ensures not only an environment free from smoke pollution, but also one capable of returning the organic matter to the soil. The planting of cover crops, the construction of terraces and silt pits, the correct placement of frond piles, and mulching with empty fruit bunches are additional practices aimed at minimizing environmental degradation. Evidences are aplenty where such practices have been shown to drastically reduce erosion, leaching and runoff.

 

As shown in an earlier section, the conservation of biodiversity through the protection of wild life on the ground has been emphasised. In actual fact, the focus should be on the biodiversity in the soil, which is greater than those on and above the soil. Any increase in soil fertility will help reduce input such as fertilisers and chemicals. This again is a better approach, if we focus on increasing soil biodiversity. By increasing the biodiversity in the soil, it is likely that the ecosystem function and services of the environment will be vastly improved, where the palm is grown.

 
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