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Circular economy paths in the olive oil industry: a Life Cycle Assessment look into environmental performance and benefits

  • LCA OF WASTE MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
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Abstract

Purpose

The olive oil sector in Italy has a significant socio-economic, environmental, and cultural relevance. However, the environmental impacts of production and consumption models are considerable, mainly due to the demand for large quantities of resources (fuels, chemicals) and to the environmental impacts of residues’ disposal. Due to the scarcity of resources and climate change concerns, circular economy principles based on industrial ecology concepts are emerging. In this paper, the principles of circular economy were specifically applied to the olive oil supply chain, to improve the environmental sustainability of the sector.

Methods

The production chain of extra virgin olive oil was analyzed using the Life Cycle Assessment method, based on primary data from an oil farm and mill in Southern Italy. The environmental impacts were evaluated through the SimaPro software and the ReCiPe 2016 Mid-point (H) Impact Assessment Method, with reference to the functional unit of 1-L bottle of extra virgin olive oil. Some circular improvement options were investigated, comparing the impacts generated by (i) extra virgin olive oil linear production without valorization of by-products, (ii) extra virgin olive oil linear production with allocation of total impacts to co-products, and (iii) two circular production systems, incorporating improvements such as replacement of diesel with biodiesel and of electricity from the national grid with energy recovered from residues.

Results and discussion

The environmental impacts of the business-as-usual production pattern were identified for possible improvements. In all phases of the production chain of organic extra virgin olive oil, the most affected impact categories were human carcinogenic toxicity, marine ecotoxicity, and terrestrial ecotoxicity. As expected, the major contributions to almost all the analyzed impact categories were determined by the agricultural phase (92.65%), followed by the bottling phase (7.13%) and the oil extraction phase (0.22%). The valorization of by-products was considered by widening the system boundaries to ensure the environmental sustainability by developing circular patterns that feedback waste materials to upstream steps of the same process. The environmental impacts resulted lower in almost all the impact categories, with the major benefits gained in the global warming and fossil depletion impact categories.

Conclusions

The analysis proved that the reuse of pomace, prunings, and exhausted cooking oil initially considered as waste can bring benefits from an environmental point of view to the larger scale of the economy, by replacing fossil fuels, as well as to the olive oil chain itself, by providing the needed energy for production.

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All data generated or analyzed during this study are included in this published article (and its supplementary information files).

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Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge the support from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation – Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale, Direzione Generale per la Promozione del Sistema Paese (Grant Number PGR05278). The authors also gratefully acknowledge the support from the project “Realising the Transition towards the Circular Economy: Models, Methods and Applications (ReTraCE),” funded by the H2020-MSCA ITN-2018 programme (Grant Number: 814247), as well as the support from the project “Promoting Circular Economy in the Food Supply Chain (ProCEedS),” funded by European Union’s Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie European Research and Innovation programme (Grant Number: 823967).

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Correspondence to Gabriella Fiorentino.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Communicated by Gabriella Arcese

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Ncube, A., Fiorentino, G., Panfilo, C. et al. Circular economy paths in the olive oil industry: a Life Cycle Assessment look into environmental performance and benefits. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-022-02031-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-022-02031-2

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