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Palm oil is the world’s most popular vegetable oil. It’s in nearly half of a huge amount of our products, from shampoo to confectionary. It is also found in essential biodiesel. The palm oil industry has generated an estimated 63.7 billion USD with a growth rate of 5.1%.
Palm oil’s popularity is due to its unique chemistry. It’s colourless and odourless making it perfect for food and cosmetics. The oil’s high melting point is perfect for creams and sweets. Most other vegetable oils need to be partially hydrogenated which makes it difficult to achieve the same consistency. To achieve it, a process is needed that results in unnecessary trans-fats. Therefore, it’s really no surprise it is inescapable.
Palm oil is one of the main causes of deforestation in Malaysia, Indonesia, and has also impacted the Amazon rainforest. Palm oil has contributed to 2.3% of global deforestation according to a 2013 report. The rapid demand for palm oil has threatened native species. The Orangutan, for instance, has been gravely impacted. Every year it is estimated that as many as 5,000 orangutans are killed in Palm Oil production.
Algae oil is being heralded as a possible saviour from palm oil. It is grown from a type of algae called Chlorella and requires less space to grow than palm oil. Yet, it isn’t all perfect. The main drawback is how expensive the process is. The harvesting and dewatering process can take up 70 per cent of capital costs. The process of creating the oil needs expensive dehydration.
There have been attempts to find a solution. A process called hydrothermal liquefaction is being actively explored by scientists. Instead of extracting the oil separately, the algae are cooked at very high temperatures. This skips the expensive dehydration costs but has only been conducted at small a scale so far.
There is a lot of debate about whether biofuels and algae are even sustainable. The algae’s food happens to be. Heterotrophic algal oil requires a huge amount of sugar to grow, and only 4 per cent of the world’s sugar cane is considered sustainable. Furthermore, Dr Kevin Flynn argues that “the production of algal biofuels is neither commercially nor environmentally sustainable.” Citing their recent research, that algal oil is limited by its biology and can never truly produce enough algae to replace palm oil.
Babassu oil is an oil extracted from the nuts of the babassu palm. It is grown in the Amazon region, with similar properties of palm oil. It is popular in body lotions and other cosmetics. Babassu oil is also turned into biofuel that can be used as an alternative to diesel fuel.
Coconut oil is another sustainable alternative. It grows quickly so may not require as much cultivation and deforestation as palm oil. However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t any deforestation. It also uses industrialisation through its extraction process.
However, the crop does mix well with other plants. It also creates multiple products through its growth, food, coconut milk and water.
Right now, palm oil alternatives are only beginning to be explored. Whilst in the future, these production methods may one day replace the need for palm oil, the technology is unfortunately still in development. However, whilst large-scale replacement of palm oil isn’t feasible – you can still work towards becoming as palm oil-free as possible. Brands are beginning to search for palm oil alternatives in their beauty and skincare products, as well as food and supplement companies starting to explore over avenues. If we can create a market demand for these products, more companies will follow.