Now that more and more people are squeezing their own fresh orange juice in the supermarket, there is also a growing mountain of orange peel. PeelPioneers uses the orange peel as a valuable raw material for essential oils, dietary fibre and ingredients for cleaning products. The company’s production facility is located in Son at present, but will soon move to 's-Hertogenbosch.
Why not let consumers squeeze their own fresh orange juice in the shop and pay for the full bottle at the cash register? This interesting growth market, which appeals specifically to consumers who like their products to be as fresh as possible, was discovered by the supermarkets a few years ago. More and more shops installed a juice squeezer in their fresh food section. This machine quickly became the most lucrative use of square footage in the entire supermarket.
But the waste disposal companies were not happy with the growing volume of orange peel waste. The ever expanding inundation of acidic wetness in their ‘waste mix’ presented a significant processing problem. Neither incineration nor fermentation yielded good results.
High time for a good plan, in Bas van Wieringen's opinion. As a business developer, he was involved in several innovations in the field of waste processing. So he knew that the growing mountain of orange peel was a serious source of disruption in the waste disposal world.
But even something as mundane as a mountain of peel can spark a brilliant idea. In 2016, Van Wieringen heard a speaker at an event talk enthusiastically about the intrinsic value of orange peel. The speaker was Sytze van Stempvoort, who told his audience how flabbergasted he was that nobody was really doing anything with this valuable raw material.
The first seeds of a new business idea started to take root in Van Wieringen's mind. “You can build a business on this, with circularity as the main focus.”
Van Wieringen and his partner, Lindy Hensen, already ran a business that specialised in providing support for innovation projects. With Van Stempvoort on board, they formed a golden trio: Hensen is a machine designer and builder, Van Stempvoort a laboratory expert and Van Wieringen is the commercial man. The three of them founded PeelPioneers: a company that specialises in sustainably processing the growing mountain of orange peel waste.
They started by carrying out all kinds of tests on their own in a warehouse in Amsterdam to prove equipment set-ups and technologies. “We didn’t have any conveyors, so we had to roll up our sleeves and shovel the product from machine to machine”, Van Wieringen tells us, looking back on these early days. After these initial experiments, they were able to raise enough money to build a production line. Now the real work could begin.
The three founders soon came to the conclusion that Brabant was the ideal location for processing orange peel. This was where various essential aspects came together.
First of all, they signed a contract with Jumbo to guarantee a steady supply of peel from the supermarkets. Engineering company and machine builder D&W Process Technology in Uden designed and built the production line.
And they also found major purchasers of orange oil in Brabant: TriStar Industries in Roosendaal (industrial cleaning products) and International Flavors & Fragrances I.F.F. in Tilburg. The latter company adds the essential oil to beverages. A few highly concentrated drops give bottled spring water a distinct citrus flavour.
But how do you build a sustainable business based on orange peel? To give themselves the best chance of success as a start-up, Van Wieringen felt that they needed to find a place in an existing logistics chain.
So PeelPioneers decided to move to a location on the doorstep of its most important partner, Renewi, a leading waste-to-product specialist. This company in Brabant is the market leader in the Netherlands when it comes to reusing organic waste flows and transports all the peel for PeelPioneers. Both companies are located on the same industrial estate in Son.
Short supply lines were also a decisive factor in other choices, such as identifying types of customer. Producers of bakery products, meat substitutes, soups and sauces like to use citrus fibre as a binding agent. Until recently, they could only source the fibre from suppliers in South Africa, Brazil or Florida. Thanks to PeelPioneers, they can now purchase their raw material locally. Even though oranges are not grown in the Netherlands at all.
Thanks to these short supply lines, PeelPioneers can keep prices competitive. “Our goal is not only to create a sustainable business, the commercial business model also has to be viable”, says Van Wieringen. “We can only grow if our prices are similar to the rest of the market. And growth generates income that we can invest to sustainably process even more citrus waste.”
This is true pioneering in the ‘real economy’. That is exactly what Van Wieringen finds so exciting. “In the world of digital technology, a ‘platform’ refers to something digital, but in this context it means a stainless steel platform to work on. Less sexy perhaps than developing apps and playing table tennis in your sneakers at lunchtime. But activities in the old economy are hugely enjoyable, because we are the new recycling link in a chain based on an old industry. And gleaming rows of stainless steel machines, and men and women in orange overalls, do all the work. Just talking about it makes me grin from ear to ear.”
PeelPioneers is focusing on expanding its business facilities at the moment. Barely 4 years after its foundation, the company is now building a completely new factory in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, an investment of €10 million that the founders recently managed to raise. At the production facility in Son en Breugel, the machines and operators are capable of processing 40,000 kilos of peel every day. The new location will be capable of processing three times that amount.
The company’s current workforce of ten people will grow to thirty next year.
Furthermore, ‘s-Hertogenbosch was a strategic choice, because this region profiles itself as the agrifood capital of the Netherlands. “There is a great deal of agrifood expertise here, with the HAS University of Applied Sciences just around the corner, and many other agri-food companies not far away. A strong cluster like this attracts talented people. So far, we have been successful in finding good people relatively easily, but attracting the talent we need remains a challenge for us.”
PeelPioneers wants to grow in terms of both the width and depth of its activities. In the future, they hope to start processing the peel waste from other citrus fruits as well, such as limes, lemons and grapefruit. The raw materials that can be extracted are just as valuable as the current product extracted from oranges, however the supply of these types of peel cannot yet be organised on a large scale.
In addition, PeelPioneers is investigating further ways of recycling orange peel. Van Wieringen pulls out a bottle containing a dye that has been extracted from the peel. Produced in the company’s own lab. “I hope that our company will always be able to carry on pioneering and exploring new applications, like the one we and our customers are working on at the moment to develop vegetarian chicken nuggets with our fibres in them.”
PeelPioneers wants to grow into a solid company, but also wants to carry on pioneering in the future. Because reinventing yourself again and again is healthy, in Van Wieringen's opinion. “Perhaps we will be doing something completely different in 10 years’ time, but I hope that we will still be at the forefront of things.”
Brabant is a fertile breeding ground for companies that want to grow in ‘agrifood’, says Bas van Wieringen of PeelPioneers. There is a strong desire to help new entrepreneurs get started in Brabant in his experience. “It's not a closed world for insiders only, people really do their best to help you get started and thrive. In Brabant, help for entrepreneurs is not just a promise on paper: there are concrete initiatives as well.”
Stichting Doen and BOM, the North-Brabant Development Agency, have been involved as investors in PeelPioneers from the beginning. “Their involvement not only gave us access to funds, it also opened up a good network. BOM knows exactly what we can expect as a start-up. They share that knowledge with us to help us with legislation and regulations, for example, and approval processes.”
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