Distilling herbs with zero waste in eastern Serbia

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Farmers harvest lavender on the Sanicula farm in Gornja Mutnica, Serbia.

The endless fields of immortelle and lavender might conjure up images of the south of France, only it’s not in the Mediterranean, but in eastern Serbia. The picturesque sight is in the town of Gornja Mutnica, in the vicinity of Paracin, on about 315 hectares of land owned by the Serbian-Belgian company Sanicula. As well as lavender, other typical Mediterranean plants such as lemon balm, thyme and heather are organically grown. After the harvest season, these plants are distilled into essential oils which, due to their quality, are attractive for customers on the world market.

There are benefits for the local community too. The company employs about 200 families from nearby villages. Every morning, they start the day with a cup of coffee made by Novica Šutić, founder and owner of the company.

“It’s my fifth season here. It can be hard work, but it is relaxing for your mind and brain. Jokes, laughter and days go by,” says one of the workers.

While developing his business Mr Šutić came up with a formula that allows him to give nature something in return to the environment in which he operates.

The entire production process is efficient and well-run — from raw materials to the establishment of plantations, the use of machinery, planting, processing, maintenance of plantations, harvesting and the extraction of the essential oils.

The process generates a large amount of waste, or biomass, and the company team has decided to make bio-pellets from it. The technology is very similar to the production of wood pellets, and this facility is the first of its kind in Serbia.

“The growth of the company, the constant expanding of plantations and the search for affordable and clean energy at the same time have made us start experimenting with biomass. After our first analyses showed that our bio-pellet had a high calorific value, everything started to come together,” Mr Šutić says.

Sanikula uses bio-pellet as an energy source in its distillation and drying facility, and the ash that remains after its combustion becomes organic fertilizer on the property. By applying this circular approach, the production of essential oils does not generate waste nor endanger the environment.

“Our plan for the annual production is to reach 3,000 tonnes of bio-pellet by 2023. In terms of energy generation potential, this is equivalent to the amount of 700 tonnes of coal and 200 tonnes of diesel fuel,” Mr Šutić says.

The use of bio-pellet reduced greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating the effects of climate change. At the moment, plants in Sanicula’s fields absorb 10 times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than this company emits in the production of essential oils. Ecologically sustainable production makes their business sustainable too. Namely, longer periods of drought, and more severe floods, which affect Serbia, significantly reduce the yields of Mediterranean herbs.

Sanicula’s project “Innovative approach to the production of pellets from medicinal herbs”, has been awarded as one of the five best innovative and climate-smart solutions within the scope of the project “Climate Smart Urban Development”, implemented by the UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, with financial support from the Global Environment Facility. This will contribute to the success of a business based on the principles of sustainable development, through the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, and the application of the “zero-waste” concept, which strives to eliminate waste from the production process. It is estimated that emission reductions equal to 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide will be achieved during the project lifetime.

Story by UNDP Serbia; screenshots from UNDP Serbia video: Preduzeće Sanicula — održiva proizvodnja etarskih ulja u Srbiji bez otpada, zagađenja i struje

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