It’s easy to sing the praises of olive oil, especially if you’re, ahem, Italian. Olive oil’s many benefits and uses for healthy cooking and eating are well chronicled and it’s become a major industry worldwide, from California’s Napa Valley to Syria.
In addition to the obvious health and nutrition benefits of olive oil from a fat and cholesterol perspective, olive pits can be turned into ethanol; you can shine your guitar with it and even shave with it. Don’t however shave your guitar with it.
That growth is also becoming a concern from an environmental, carbon-neutral farming and wastewater pollution standpoint.
Mass production, especially in the Mediterranean region were olive trees have been cultivated for more than 7,000 years, is adding to pollution, according to Arab Environment Watch and IRIN, a humanitarian news and analysis project of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Syria, for example is the world’s fifth largest producer of oil, supplying nearly 5 percent of world production. Olive oil waste products that are not properly disposed of from the country’s 920 processing mills are causing soil and water pollution, and killing plant and animal life, a recent report from IRIN said.
During the processing of olive oil, olives are crushed and mixed with water. The oil is then separated out from the dirty water and solid residue. “The water used in the process and then discarded is often just pumped out onto surrounding land,” environmental expert Marwan Dimashki told IRIN.
This wastewater contains polythenols, which provide the natural green and black coloring of olives. “However, they are chemicals which, when spread in large quantities, change environmental conditions and cause a reduction in soil fertility,” Dimashki says.
Human health could be at risk as a result because the contaminated water becomes undrinkable, he continues. “It goes brown and smelly and contains chemicals bad for human consumption, such as some of the polythenols.”
And where processing plants are close to rivers, the wastewater can run off into the rivers, harming aquatic life and contaminating human drinking water.
If pomace – the solid residue left over from the processing of olive oil – is not properly dried out and disposed of, it too can seep into the soil, changing the acidity and nutrient make-up.
The total wastewater from Syria’s olive oil production amounts to 700,000 cubic meters a year, along with 280,000 tons of pomace.
The impact on human health of consuming the chemicals in olive wastewater is still mostly unknown. Catechol, one of the chemicals in the wastewater thought by some experts to be harmful, is not considered a threat by the World Health Organization (WHO). Other agencies however, such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer label catechol as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans.
The reasons for the contamination in Syria include dated technology and a lack of awareness by mill owners. “The majority of the mills are family-run businesses which still use traditional presses rather than [modern] machinery,” Dimashki says. “They do not have the equipment to clean the wastewater and often cannot afford to buy it.”
In addition, many mill owners are unaware of the environmental damage they are causing. “There is a lack of education as to why and how waste products need to be dealt with, so mill owners release the wastewater not realizing it will harm their land as well as the wider environment,” Dimashki said.
But the importance of the olive oil industry means the problem is gaining more attention. A 1.7 million euro ($2.5 million) three-year regional project to tackle the industry’s pollution across Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, funded by the UN Development Program and the European Commission, concludes at the end of this year.
The project aims to establish an integrated management system for olive oil wastes in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to reduce their negative environmental impacts without harming the production and growth of the olive oil sector.
Education, training and resources focused on wastewater treatment are a large part of the project. Its final stage this month will include a test of a mobile wastewater treatment plant.
That might not be enough due to the huge need and demand for wastewater treatment. Large central treatment plants likely will be needed.
Mixing oil and water, in this case olive oil, turns a new light on an old adage.