Italy welcomes bioeconomy, kisses agricultural runoff goodbye

Many agrifood industries produce large quantities of waste. The tomato industry, for instance, processes millions of tons of tomatoes into peeled, pureed and concentrated tomatoes. [IIT]

This article is part of our special report Bioeconomy in the CAP’s nine objectives.

This article is also available in Portuguese, Italian and Spanish.

In 2017, Italy’s entire bioeconomy sector had a total turnover of €300 billion and, within 13 years, employed two million people. The country’s Bioeconomy Strategy was taken up a notch and made even more ambitious at the start of 2019. EURACTIV’s partner Agronotizie reports.

Italy has invested heavily in the bioeconomy, primarily in research, also supported by the European Union.

The Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) has a team of researchers who are working on the use of biomass for the production of bioplastics. The waste materials which can be used are diverse, as discarded orange peels from orange juice production, coffee grounds, rice husks, corn, parsley, all of which researchers have converted to plastic.

And in relation to the circular economy, IIT researchers have developed bioplastic plant pots which, unlike plastic ones, are not thrown away when plants are re-planted. Instead, they are buried and degrade, providing the soil with nutrients – an example of perfect circularity.

Fertilisers from agro-industry waste

Many agrifood industries produce large quantities of waste. The tomato industry, for instance, processes millions of tons of tomatoes into peeled, pureed and concentrated tomatoes.

The skins and seeds of the fruits remain in factories before being sent to biogas plants, but in the future, they could be converted to food for rabbits and cattle.

Researchers from the National Research Council (CNR) have in fact used tomato processing by-products to enrich feed intended for rabbits and dairy cattle.

The positive aspects are twofold: making the most of waste and providing animals with healthier nutrition. And, in fact, analysis carried out on the meat of those animals revealed an increase in nutritional quality.

Researchers are now working on artichoke leaves and ‘pastazzo’ (the residue which remains after squeezing citrus fruits). However, there are two problems that need to be addressed: the seasonality of the products, which sees the availability of the by-products peaking in a limited timeframe; and the costs of transportation, storage and processing.

In the same EU Regulation 2019/1009 on fertilisers (available on Fertilgest, the portal dedicated to crop nutrition), organic and organo-mineral fertilisers, previously regulated at national level, are regulated for the first time at European level, a concrete step towards developing a circular economy, which would allow waste to become raw material (if it has certain characteristics).

Things that have been the basis of agriculture for thousands of years, like the use of livestock wastewater as a fertiliser, could also reduce business expenditure as fertilisers no longer need to be purchased.

Not just fossil fuels

A simple but effective method of reusing agrifood production waste is to transform biomass into energy.

Enzo Perri, a researcher at the Council for Agricultural Research and Agricultural Economy Analysis (CREA) told AgroNotizie that, “during the grinding of olives there is an abundance of stones which are an excellent source of energy. These can be used in a biomass burner for heating greenhouses or, as I do myself, heating the home”.

In addition to the pomace (pulp and stones), the milling industry produces large quantities of ‘vegetation water‘, composed of water (70-80%), fatty acids and phenols.

Although such waste has become costly for the mills to dispose of these days, the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA) has found a way to reuse it.

The researchers have developed a machine that transforms vegetation water into gas through a reforming process.

Silvano Tosti, author of the research and head of the ENEA Laboratory of Nuclear Technologies, told AgroNotizie that “the organic part of the water is first concentrated and then brought to a high temperature. With the help of a catalyst gases such as methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide are released”.

In this way, the mill is autonomous in its disposal of vegetation water, and produces energy in the form of heat that can be used for industrial or domestic purposes.

Enabling farms to be energy independent is also one of the goals of CNH Industrial, which manufactures tractors under the New Holland, Case IH and Steyr brands.

The group intends to contribute to the development of energy independent farms capable of supplying their own energy needs independently, transforming biomass of agricultural origin into gas.

New Holland has, in fact, launched a methane-powered tractor prototype, the T6 Methane Power.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna, Daniel Eck, Zoran Radosavljevic]

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