They Threw 12,000 Tons Of Orange Peels In A Forest. 16 Years Later They Returned to See The Results…
Tune in for some of the most shocking transformations our world's ever seen!Nature
It was a sunny day like any other in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Conservation Area back in 1997. The vegetation of was flourishing, animal species were thriving, and the land had never looked better.
But all of a sudden, several trucks appeared on the horizon. They tracked their way through the park, and then, unbelievably, dumped all the cargo they’d been carrying right in the middle of the area, and just drove off. But it wasn’t just any cargo, it was orange peels.
Over the next year, more than 1000 trucks would drive to this otherwise beautiful site, dumping a massive 12,000 metric tons of orange peels over the land.
Was the owner of these trucks trying to ruin the landscape? Was dumping them here some sort of super weird act of vandalism or protest? Were they trying to clear the area of its flora and fauna for their own means using a weird, all-natural deterrent?
To get to the bottom of this orangey mess, we need to rewind all the way back to 1976. That’s when Daniel Janzen and Winnie Hallwachs graduated from Princeton university and began focusing their careers on ensuring a future for endangered tropical forest ecosystems.
They became ecologists at the University of Pennsylvania and worked as advisors for many years at Guanacaste Conservation Area. Though the country only covers 0.03% of the earth’s surface, Costa Rica accounts for a massive 6% of the entire world’s biodiversity, and Janzen and Hallwachs were keen to keep it that way!
However, in 1995, fruit juice company Del Oro set up a large factory and extensive groves near this conservation area, in the borderlands between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The Conservation Organization had initially wanted to acquire this land, keen to keep its forest safe from the hazards and pollutions of industrialization!
But Janzen and Hallwachs suddenly realized there was a deal to be made; one that both sides would benefit from. In exchange for the borderland, Del Oro would be permitted to dump their waste in the conservation park.
From the outside, a deal allowing a corporation to turn a conservation area into a dump site seemed utterly insane! But Janzen and Hallwachs were confident that securing this borderland for the conservation organization, regardless of the draw backs, was a huge win.
Before this juicy deal could go ahead though, certain conditions had to be met. First, Del Oro could only dump agricultural waste, mainly its orange peels and pulp. Second, it was not allowed to use any pesticides on its crops, so no nasty chemicals on the peels could harm the native plants.
The pulps also had to be rinsed of their limonene oil, which Del Oro did happily as it could sell this off for use in household cleaning products. And finally, the orange waste could only be dumped on parts of the park previously used for cattle grazing. These were areas where the soil quality was poor and degraded.
For Del Oro, it was a weird but small price to pay for being able to rid themselves of the otherwise useless orange peels and pulp for free, and so they agreed. Janzen and Hallwachs’ plan was in motion, and they were so confident they were doing the right thing that they struck a deal to receive 1,000 truckloads of Del Oro’s peels annually for 20 years!
In total, this would mean around a quarter of a million metric tons of peels and pulp would be dumped on the land!
But the plan was interrupted when jealousy struck from a rival juice company, TicoFruit. Previously, having had to overhaul their entire waste disposal system, TicoFruit envied the ease Del Oro had just dumping their waste peels in the national park.
And so, they launched a lawsuit to stop them! They alleged the dumping was dangerous, with piles of rotting peels and flies causing hazards to locals and wildlife alike. TicoFruit also began an all-out media war, decrying that the orange peel project was destroying the national park. Even though this was all pulp fiction, TicoFruit’s smear campaign worked and turned the whole country against Del Oro!
The public outcry was so great, the case ended up in the Costa Rican Supreme Court. Despite evidence from environmental groups like the Rainforest Alliance, assuring the project was ecologically safe, the Supreme Court ruled against Del Oro.
In the end, the project was shut down, but the 12,000 metric tons of orange peels already dumped over 3 hectares of land were left behind. Over time, the project was completely forgotten about until 16 years later.
A team of researchers from Princeton University, having read up on the orange peel experiment, decided to return to the site to find out what had happened. But when the team arrived, they couldn’t find the site! The orange peels had completely disappeared!
While searching for any trace of the missing peels, the team found themselves lost in a thick, overgrown rainforest. That was until they stumbled across an old yellow sign wrapped up in giant jungle vines.
It was the same style of sign the researchers had used all those years ago to label the barren, poor quality soil the peels had been dumped on, and then finally, it dawned on them. The rainforest they were stumbling around in was the original, barren soiled, orange peel site!
It turned out the orange peels had completely transformed the barren landscape. After inspecting the area, the Princeton team discovered a phenomenal 176% increase in aboveground biomass within the 7-acre area.
They measured a fig tree so large it took three people to wrap their arms all the way around it! And among its branches, researchers spotted a tayra, a rainforest weasel the same size as a small dog.
Though what stunned the team the most was the rich diversity of the tree canopy; they counted twenty-four tree species, the most common of which were associated with old-growth forests. A stark contrast to the untreated pastureland a little over 300 ft away, where the team counted only 8 tree species.
That meant that, on this previously barren patch of land, a healthy, vibrant rainforest had been entirely regrown! Some might think magic beans had been sown. But this was Janzen and Hallwachs’ plan all along.
The site had been originally overrun with invasive grass species; however, the grasses were smothered under the tons of orange rinds, and decomposed into a loamy, rich compost. The pressed oranges were perfect for the task as they had been leached of limonene oil, which can prevent plants from growing.
And the degraded peels packed the compost full of powerful nutrients like potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous. This nutrient-rich compost provided lush ground for native plants to take hold and grow.
Given a mere 16 years to thrive, along with the perfect weather conditions Costa Rica had to offer, a whole new rainforest was born!
However, this rainforest success is a special case. Costa Rica is near the equator, that means it’s warm and humid all year-round, providing a perfect temperate climate for things to decompose and grow quickly.
Similar tactics used in other parts of the globe where temperatures drop below freezing would slow this process or prevent it entirely. So, this rainforest phenomena truly was a case of the orange peels being dumped in the right place at the right time!
The game-changing potential of orange peels doesn’t just stop at restoring rainforests though! These zesty rinds are being eyed up by scientists for a whole bunch of other uses. Leading the charge is the Orange Peel Exploitation Company.
Despite the name, the O.P.E.C aren’t committing any fruity crimes, but they are dedicated to finding ways to use orange peels to save the world! They’ve begun research into using orange peels as a potential biofuel, a greener alternative to the fossil fuels our cars currently guzzle away.
And to reduce waste produced from single use plastics, the company AIMPLAS are looking to use orange peels as a material for a range of bioplastics. So, you could end up drinking your orange juice out of a plastic carton made from old orange peels.
And the world-saving potential of orange peels doesn’t stop there, as researchers from the University of Granada have gone as far as to engineer a wastewater filtration method using discarded orange peels!
The chemical makeup of the peels means they can filter out toxins such as ammonia, purifying the water and making it safe to drink. This can save the lives of millions of people, ensuring they have access to clean, fresh water.
The Rainforest Café
Inspired by the orange peels experiment, the good folks over at the University of Hawaii decided to put coffee to the test to see if it could restore a depleted rainforest. Just like us, it turns out forests move faster with a cup of joe in their system!
Trees are big drinkers, so to regrow a rainforest you need a "latte" of coffee! But the researchers weren’t holding up the line at Starbucks ordering 20,000 vanilla cappuccinos. Instead, they used coffee waste!
Though we tend to think of coffee as a bean, it actually begins life as a berry. After the coffee berries are harvested, almost 50% of them end up as waste because their bright red flesh is discarded to get to the seed beneath.
But this time, instead of throwing the berry skins into the trash, they were collected by researchers and, in a study conducted in 2018, deposited on a plot of deforested land. This land had been exploited for years to graze cattle and was dominated by invasive palisade grass which can grow up to 16 feet tall!
This super tall grass blocks light from native trees and prevents them from growing.
So, to combat this, the researchers spread 1 ½ feet of the pulped coffee skins on top of the pasture grasses, which smothered the foliage and caused it to decay. The intense heat of the composting process destroyed all the root systems of the invasive grasses.
Not only that, but the decomposed grasses mixed in with the coffee pulp created a nutrient-rich fertile soil. A perfect brew for plants! The trees loved their coffee compost, though, and shot up like they had rocket fuel in their system!
After two years, the researchers found the barren plot was now 80% covered in new tree canopy. Some trees were more than 15 feet tall! This included tropical species that can grow as tall as 60 feet.
The researchers compared the trees with an adjacent plot that hadn’t been covered with coffee pulp and found the coffee-fueled trees were a phenomenal 4 times taller on average than the untreated plot.
The caffeine in their system had kickstarted a mega growth spurt!
So, if coffee can cause trees to grow faster, could it be used on a larger scale to help combat the human effects of mass deforestation?
Not exactly, because this method has its drawbacks as well. The decomposing coffee pulp attracts a lot of flies and insects, which affect anyone living nearby. Though buying a flyswat may be a small price to pay for the benefit of the planet.
However, coffee fertilizer can also cause watershed contamination. The pulp can end up washing down into rivers and streams causing excessive algae growth, as the rich nutrients that give trees a boost can also supercharge weeds as well.
In the water, this can trigger giant algae blooms which can disrupt the delicate ecosystems of rivers and lakes. And not only that, but coffee pulp can contain traces of harmful pesticides that could end up polluting our waterways.
Overall, coffee fertilizer has its benefits, but it’s best used in moderation. If we can strike the right balance, then we can keep the world’s rainforests looking brew-tiful!
The Green Wall of China
The great Gobi Desert covers 500,000 miles of northern China, and thanks to climate change, it’s only getting bigger! The Gobi is the fastest growing desert on Earth, consuming 2,250 miles of grassland each year and turning it into dry, arid, inhospitable wastelands.
The cause for this rapid desertification is a result of China’s frenzied industrial revolution in the early 20th century. Though the country now has the 2nd largest economy in the world, it’s come at the cost of mass deforestation and overgrazing, which has ravaged the country’s timber and water resources.
These depleted lands and forests are now being consumed by the desert and are, worryingly, closing in on major population centers like Beijing. So, to combat the Gobi, the Chinese government came up with a plan utilizing one of their greatest skills; they’d build a great wall, a great green wall! Not another actual great wall, it's in fact a giant expansive greenery.
In 1978, China began the ambitious Three-North Shelter Forest program, the goal of which was to block the expansion of the Gobi Desert by planting trees. In the past forty years, more than 19.47 million acres of forest have been created and around 130,000 square miles of desertification have been reversed.
For perspective, that’s bigger than the entire state of New Mexico. And it’s not done yet! The program is predicted to spawn 87 million acres of new forest by 2050! It’s so successful that by 2020, the Shelter Forest program restored 93.24% of the Maowusu Desert to lush forest with fertile vegetation!
Unfortunately, it’s not all bright and sunny along the great green wall. During the early years of the project, monoculture was practiced; this is where only one variety of non-native, fast-growing tree species was planted.
Though these efforts look impressive from above, these trees deplete the soil of nutrients and water, causing native tree populations to suffer and die off. Not only that, but these single species forests are at grave risk of being wiped out by disease strains in a domino effect.
Despite the great green wall having increased tree cover by 32% between 2000 and 2015, there was a net loss of 6.6% of native old-growth forests. And Investigation into the area also discovered that farmers were cutting down native trees in order to collect money for planting new trees!
Ironically, the Gobi Desert has ended up boasting a healthier ecosystem than the artificial forests trying to halt its advance! It’s home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, such as the majestic snow leopard or the two-humped Bactrian camel. It really says a lot when a desert has more life in it than a man-made forest!
Recognizing its problems, the Chinese government rolled out a series of nationwide bans on felling natural forests between 2014 and 2017. And instead of solely planting monocultures, they have adapted to plant native tree species, shrubs, and herbs, increasing the biodiversity of the great green wall’s ecosystem.
Farmers are now paid to plant native plants and know to leave the old-growth forests alone! And so, the great green wall has turned things around and become a thriving benefit to the planet. Looks like Beijing can breathe easy, for now.
Picnic on the Moon
The valley of Wadi Rum in southern Jordan is a landscape so dry and barren, it’s been nicknamed “Valley of the Moon”. With its red sands and rugged cliffs, it looks like planet Mars! It was even used by legendary film director Ridley Scottas an outside filming location for his movie ‘The Martian’.
But you won’t find Matt Damon camping out there these days, as it’s located in the second most water-poor nation in the world. Jordan has less than 150 cubic meters of water per person per year, meanwhile the US has more than 9000 cubic meters of water per person!
And the Wadi Rum is even drier. Between March and December, when the desert has its “wettest” season, the average rainfall is only 5 millimeters per month. That’s one teaspoon of water!
However, amongst the barren desert dunes, the Rum Farm is flourishing! Jordan’s largest farm, it stretches across almost 5000 acres of land, producing 20,000 tons of potatoes, 10,000 tons of onions, and thousands of tons of soft fruits such as peaches, pears, figs, and oranges every year!
The water is drawn from an underground aquifer which draws up ground water from 100 to 1300 ft deep in the earth. Pumps draw water up to the surface where it irrigates the circular fields by using a pivoting ramp with watering nozzles.
To conserve water and prevent it escaping into the dry desert air, plastic poly tunnels encase some of the less hardy crops and help protect them from the extreme desert temperatures. Farmers have also planted hardy succulents and legume plants to provide ground cover for growing crops.
The gel content of succulent plants lowers soil surface temperatures and reduces the effect of shifting sands, while drawing very little water away from the crops themselves.
These are similar to the agricultural methods used thousands of years ago by the ancient Egyptians and Nabateans, so it’s a tried and tested technique! Turning the dry desert into fertile farmland has been a huge win for Jordan.
Currently the country imports 98% of its food, but now, with booming harvests in the wadi rum, this may mean the country can move towards being more self-sufficient.
In the future, farming the desert could become a method other countries adopt as the global population keeps growing and the world gets hungrier. Worryingly, the Food and Agricultural Organization calculated that food production needs to be doubled to meet the demands of the world’s growing population.
That means the world will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than has been previously produced in the last 8000 years! With that said, does anyone fancy a trip to the farmer’s market in the Sahara?
However, we can’t turn all the deserts green. Though they may seem like barren wastelands, deserts are rich resources that provide the world with vital minerals such as gypsum, nitrates, and potassium.
Over 50% of the world’s copper comes from deserts in Mexico, Australia, and Chile, while deserts in China and the U.S are literal goldmines!
Converting all deserts into farmland would compromise our access to these treasure troves. As instead of water evaporating and leaving behind these precious minerals that are essential for fertile soil, it would be absorbed by the crops.
So, while humans are responsible for some of the most extreme transformations to the world’s natural terrain, we can’t change everything to suit our needs! Keep that in mind next time you visit your grocery store!