Nestlé’s announcement that it is launching a zero waste, tea-based fertilizer initiative in Pakistan is a heartening addition to the circular economy. This is the evocative term for a regenerative approach to business in which leakage of resources, waste, emissions and energy are minimized. Key tools are innovations in design thinking and manufacturing, recycling, reuse, refurbishment, repair, and integration of material and energy loops. It’s contrasted with the linear economy’s “Take, make and dispose” model.
Zero waste is a priority here. Tea making generates plenty of waste, from the farm to the factory to the thrown away used tea bag. One study states that of India’s near 860,000 metric tons of production, 190,000 are waste, mainly leaves and fragments that are not packaged in the final product. Lipton’s massive Jebel Ali factory in Dubai produced 450 metric tons of waste annually taking up 30,000 square meters; this amounted to 5.4 kilograms per metric ton, a figure Lipton has reduced to 0.09.
Nestlé ’s plan goes beyond getting rid of waste by turning it into an economic, social and environmental asset. Tea waste is packed with the compounds that make for a superior fertilizer: nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Waste supply in Pakistan is substantial, with 100 billion cups of tea leaving 200,000 metric tons of used leaves. The challenge is to harness Nestlé’s scale with partners who can coordinate the many processes at scattered locations.
Nestlé Everyday is one of the largest tea creamer providers in Pakistan. It has a strong global record in circular economics and has reduced overall waste by 75 percent. One in five of its 436 factories in food operations produces none. It looks at waste as an end-to-end supply chain issue: upstream to basic research and agriculture through to the retailer and on to the end consumer. It stresses that this is not a matter of simple case-by-case reduction. “We need to deeply understand what waste looks like, how it comes about, and how we can do better. This takes both an eye for detail and creative thinking.” (From Nestlé’s War on Waste: A Journey through the Supply Chain, by Daniel Lagger, executive director, Technical and Production, 2016)
The tea fertilizer project has three stages, reflecting the need to source infrastructures, expertise and technical support. It is being coordinated by the firm’s innovation platform, HENRi. Phase 1 is centered on Pakistan, with the expectation and goal of expanding into China, India, and other tea-producing countries. The focus is on procurement of tea waste, through collaboration with startups, innovators, waste management companies, and other parties; Nestlé has issued an open-ended invitation to contribute to the project through an online application, with the expectation of choosing five or so partners for the next stage.
To apply click here before the Nov. 11 deadline.
That phase aims at converting the tea into fertilizer, preferably through a composting process. The third stage will “productize and commercialize” the new good, selling it to local farmers as a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly choice. Nestlé expects that it will improve crop yields.
The initiative is one of many that aim to transform tea leaf trash into an asset. Not only does tea waste make for an excellent fertilizer but it offers many other opportunities. A few examples are:
- Biomass fuel, bio-char and bio-oil: the waste is decomposed using fluidized bed pyrolysis. This is a thermal decomposition process that occurs in the absence of oxygen.
- Clay bricks: the waste is rich in cellulose, pectin, starch and sugar and can be formed to feed ovens and replace coal and wood energy.
- Heavy metal absorption (chromium, zinc, etc.) to restore soil.
- A recent Iranian study found that the waste from tea extract production is surprisingly rich in easily extractable anti-oxidants and may have attractive secondary markets.
- West Bengal farmers sell their tea waste to the caffeine industry both domestically and through exports. It is widely used in pharmaceutical products. The caffeinated waste is an effective feed for pigs and poultry.
- Nestlé ’s own wider initiatives have included using coffee grounds as biomass, providing 35 percent of the factory’s energy, recovering, recycling, and selling oat hulls as animal feed, and breaking down bacteria in a “chemical soup” of waste in an airtight tank to produce biogas.
- Other multinationals are very active in the move to zero waste, too. Finlay’s successes include a biogas plant that takes black and green tea spent leaf as input from its farms and discharges it into a slurry lagoon to be used as a soil fertilizer for timber locations, new field clearing and tea plantations. The digester can hold 7,000 metric tons of organic tea waste.
Several general points are apparent in the brief Nestlé announcement. The most important is that zero waste is a practical target, not a fanciful wish. The second is that this is integral to supply chain integration and to be effective needs to be viewed as part of everyday business. Finally, it’s increasingly clear that we are all in this together: solutions to the many challenges of change are increasingly joint—not single player.
That includes the use of blockchain technology along the supply chain, socially-driven alliances such as Fair Trade, fighting climate change, and addressing social disruptions. Obviously, many of these initiatives are contentious and produced mixed results. That said, the ethos of United We Stand underpins any shift from the linear to circular economy. The issue is how expansive the “We” is.