A team of young female experts is giving a second life to Sevilla’s legendary oranges

Plastic is a plague, and the entire world knows it. We produce way too much of it (more than 360 million metric cubes per year) and about eight to 10 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans every year. If you haven’t heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s time you have a look. It’s already three times the size of France and forms a massive floating island of plastic between California and Hawaii.

Ocean pollution is already having a horrific impact on life on Earth, as millions of birds, fishes and other marine organisms are killed by plastics every year. In fact, scientists estimate that nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are threatened by plastic debris. Last, but certainly not least, nearly 100 per cent of what goes into plastic is derived from fossil fuels. So with the petrochemical and plastic industries planning a massive expansion in production, this climate and biodiversity crisis is on track to get much worse. And we’re only starting to comprehend the impact of plastic on human life too, as scientists found tiny plastic particles in human blood, and are questioning whether the chemicals found in plastic could be damaging the quality and quantity of human sperm, therefore reducing fertility.

So where do we go from here? An assessment from the UN Environment Programme from October 2021 suggests that to drastically reduce plastic waste, what we need is an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of fossil fuel subsidies and a shift towards circular approaches as well as reduction.

In Sevilla, Spain, a group of young climate enthusiasts were inspired by the smell of “azahar” that pervades all corners of their city when spring comes and the orange trees blossom. There are about 40,000 orange trees in Sevilla, making it the city with the most orange trees in the world. Every season, these trees produce about 5.7 million kilos of oranges. For Monica, Celia and Marina, this means a huge amount of orange peels are wasted. Their idea is to transform orange peels into a locally made and ecological alternative to plastic that would not only be generated by renewable resources but also biodegradable.

The three of them met during Climathon organised in Sevilla in 2021. Climathon is a place-based programme orchestrated by EIT Climate-KIC that encourages citizens to brainstorm local solutions to transform their city towards a net-zero carbon economy as well as mitigate and adapt to climate change. The challenge they had to work on as a team was how to implement a circular economy in the new ‘e-City Sevilla’, a pioneering public-private partnership project that aims to turn the Cartuja Island (a large island situated in the middle of the Guadalquivir River in the city centre) into a fully sustainable and decarbonised enclave by 2025.

“We felt like the e-City Sevilla project did not take waste management into account within other major objectives such as green mobility or building an intelligent power grid, so we wanted to provide a solution in this field. The project included extending the green areas, so we decided to focus on the waste generated by them. We focused on the orange trees, as Seville is known to be the city with the highest number of orange trees in the world and finding a circular approach to this waste meant our idea could be scaled up beyond e-City Sevilla, providing a solution to the massive amount of orange peels that are wasted every year in the whole city,” says Mónica Villoslada Valbuena.

Mónica Villoslada Valbuena is a biotechnologist at the Instituto de la Grasa, a Research Center of Spanish National Research Council (a Spanish state agency attached to the Ministry of Science and Innovation as a public research body), where she works on the biotechnological development of oilseeds of industrial interest. The team also includes Celia María Camacho Montaño, a climate change geologist who is currently working as a project geologist in technical consulting and testing laboratories, and Marina Pérez Fernández, an international trade and marketing professional currently working as for an ecological paint manufacturer.

The combination of their experience, background, expertise and passion gave rise to Remonda

“The name Remonda evokes the orange peels (“monda” in Spanish), as well as the concept of re-using. What we want is to give a second life to the organic waste generated by the orange trees, and our idea is to turn the orange peels into bioplastic through a simple biotechnological process, so that they could later be used to locally manufacture bio-based and biodegradable products. Not only does this process create added-value products from the orange waste, but it also reduces the consumption of a highly polluting material such as conventional plastic,” explains Mónica.

This not-so simple biotechnological process is made possible thanks to the presence of valuable polysaccharides such as pectin, cellulose and hemicellulose in the orange peel.

“For us, innovation is the process of coming up with solutions or products that offer a greater value and benefits to current alternatives. We believe sustainability is intrinsically linked to innovation, as it is a necessary evolution both for the planet and for us as a society,” says Monica. 

The team participated in the EIT Community New European Bauhaus Ideation Awards, a competition organised by the European Union to celebrate existing beautiful, sustainable, and inclusive achievements and support younger generations to further develop emerging concepts and ideas. With their circular solution, Remonda won the Audience Award (€1,000) as well as an invitation to attend the New European Bauhaus Ideation Awards Ceremony that will take place during the Festival of the New European Bauhaus from 9 to 12 June 2022.

“Winning this award was a great recognition for our project, and it is also an incentive to further work on the idea and visualise the opportunity for change towards sustainability, knowing that it is possible to be supported by institutions to achieve sustainable development.”

Now whether or not they win the Grand Jury Award (the “Best of Bests”) that will be announced during the ceremony and receive a prize of €10,000 for seed-funding to implement their idea, Remonda is already working on the research for the manufacturing process and the development of a Minimum Viable Product that they could soon launch to market.

“In the long-term, our objective is to be able to revalue and divert from landfills the six million kilos of oranges generated in Sevilla each year… and create amazing products with them!” 

 

More information on how to register for the New European Bauhaus Ideation Awards Ceremony is available here: EIT Community New European Bauhaus Ideation Awards Ceremony (climate-kic.org).

 
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