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Palm oil: the process from tree to refinery
Palm oil: the process from tree to refinery
News Nov 20, 2013

What better way to get to know a supply chain than to follow it - from start to finish, on the ground.

What better way to get to know a supply chain than to follow it – from start to finish, on the ground.

I already knew that oil palm is so popular for growers because it’s so productive – one hectare can produce up to ten times more oil than other oilseeds – but I didn’t really get the scale of it all. Seeing it first hand, on the ground, and talking to the staff at the plantation helped me realise this.

The trees start being productive at around 3 years and then they keep producing for around 25 years.

In Indonesia, the industry average is 4.14 tonnes of palm oil per year per hectare; enormous compared to, for example, soy’s average of around half a tonne per hectare.

Increasing demand used to mean clearing land but it’s not a choice between palm oil or forests. Take some of our members for example; they’re implementing forest conservation policies that demonstrate that forest conservation doesn’t need to come at a cost to community or economic development.

As part of this plantation’s commitment to forest conservation, they’ve maintained an area of High Conservation Value (HCV) forest which basically means that this forest is worth protecting for both social and environmental reasons.

They’ve sectioned it off and plantation staff regularly monitor the area, keeping an eye out for wildlife but also checking for any encroachments.

An early start: staff assemble at 5am to get their instructions on the day’s work.

On the one plantation there are hundreds of staff, doing all kinds of jobs from harvesting to working in the mill to office work. This fairly simple seeming supply chain requires an army of manual labour.

As well as locals, these workers are from all over Indonesia; from Papua, Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra and many of the other islands spread out across this vast archipelago. This is common in Indonesia, people travelling for work opportunities but the scale of it here seems different as it’s on such a huge scale.

Children on the estates owned by this particular plantation have access to free education and the schools are located on the estate so it’s not too much of a journey to get there.

The mass exodus of workers is interspersed with groups of children neat in their uniforms on their way to school.

From one tree to the next, the harvester walks along with a steel pole – that weighs around 12kgs and has a saw blade at one end – and a wheelbarrow.

To work out which fruit bunches are ready to be harvested, he’ll spy ripe fruit scattered on the ground. First he saws off the surrounding palm fronds and then he cuts down the fruit bunch.

The harvesters make it look almost easy but, from watching someone else try, guiding a pole of that weight at that kind of height is not easy work.

It’s quiet in amongst the trees – just the sound of the harvesters sawing and the fruit bunches thump as they drop.

It seems like fairly lonely work although there are some husband and wife teams, the husband harvests the fruit from the trees and the wife follows, collecting the fallen fruit that is left scattered on the ground.

Weighing around 25kgs, the fruit bunch is moved to the road. Later, they’re collected by trucks which will take the fruit to the mill.

Nothing is wasted; even the individual fruits that fall from the bunch are caught and thrown into the truck.

Trucks dump the fruit bunches into containers, a little like a garbage skip, which then move along to the steriliser station for some steam cleaning. The smell is intense, it’s sweet, almost fermented.

From the steriliser station, the fruit bunches have softened, loosening the fruit. The threshing machine does the rest of the job, completely separating the parts of the fruit bunch.

The leftover fibre and shells are used as fuel, powering the mill as well as all other electricity needs on the plantation.

The empty fruit bunches are used as organic fertiliser and the fruit is taken over to the press where the oil is squished out to make the oil.

There are two types of oil:

  1. Palm oil (Crude Palm Oil – CPO) – made from the pulp of the fruit. It’s edible and used in food products like biscuits, instant noodles, bread and many many other food items.
  2. Palm kernel oil – made from the seed of the fruit. It’s used mainly in cosmetics and shampoos, etc.

The crude palm oil is pumped into trucks and then taken to the bulking station – which is essentially just enormous holding tanks.

These trucks are unloading crude palm oil at the bulking station. The oil is pumped into the tanks; held, waiting, ready to be sent to the refinery. Apparently the oil can’t be stored for too long as it doesn’t quite go off, but it isn’t as fresh.

Weighing in at the refinery. This is where crude palm oil goes to be refined, bleached and deodorised resulting in RBD palm oil.

The control room: the workers monitor and manage the refining process.

It’s an anonymous kind of process, all this work happening behind what could be dismissed as a bunch of shiny metal, levers and buttons.

And the refined oil is pumped back into a truck ready to go back to storage to be traded; bought by those who will turn it into food, cosmetics and biodiesel.

Obviously this is an example of one producer and their supply chain and there are many other stories that could be written. This is just one part of the supply chain showing just one part of this world.

Related News:

Areas of work:
Healthy forests Respected workers

Products:
Palm oil

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