What does Rum have to do with Sargassum?

If you’ve been to a Caribbean Island or the South Coast of Florida in the past couple of years, it’s quite possible that you have heard of or seen sargassum. At once an innocuous seaweed floating on the surface of the ocean and providing a habitat for numerous sea creatures and a smelly sometimes dangerous nuisance that accumulates on beaches. When it decomposes it produces both hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, both of which are toxic in high concentrations. Sargassum is both the product of and, potentially, a partial solution to climate change.

Sargassum is a natural occurrence and nothing new. What is relatively new is the volume of sargasso that is washing up on the beaches and shorelines around the Caribbean. The decomposing mass is off putting both to the denizens over the countries surrounding the Caribbean and for the millions of tourists who’s spending is vital for many of the economies. The mass of weed covering beaches is unsightly and malodorous. Anyone who has lived near or driven past a pulp and paper mill will know the smell that sargassum emits. But where paper mills were often associated with prosperity, in a tourism dependent economy, the stench is a big problem.

Nor is it easy to dispose of. The massive floating mats of seaweed also collect thousands or other living beings including jellyfish, which can sting the hands and legs of workers attempting to clean up the mess. Sargassum is now arriving in such volume that it requires heavy machinery to move, and disposal can also be a problem. With landfills in many jurisdictions already at capacity, it is difficult to find a place to put the decomposing weed. It also simply moves the toxic emissions elsewhere and effects other people. Sargassum is such a large problem that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has coined a term for the phenomenon they call “sargassum inundation events” or “SIE.”

The economic impacts are not trivial. The Inter-American Development Bank has estimated that sargassum inundation events can cause an annual decline of between 5.9 and 9.9 percent reduction in gross local product for communities along México’s coastline. Countries like Barbados are disproportionately affected.

“Barbados is very dependent on coastal tourism and with any deluge of sargassum on our beaches there are concomitant negative outcomes for the sector. Up to the time of this report, there has been some increase in the seaweed, mainly along the east and southeast coasts, which are the Atlantic Coastlines. One member also reported some occurrence on the West Coast, which is very unusual,” said the Chair of the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association.

Unsurprisingly, Barbados is one of the countries working hard to find a solution to the vexing problem. Researchers at the University of the West Indies have discovered away to turn sargassum and the by-product of one of Barbados most famous exports into a biofuel that could help the Caribbean nation reach its goal of being fossil fuel free by the year 2030. The tests move the process have been promising. A biogas that is produced from the process can be used in a normal internal combustion vehicle in the same manner as propane or natural gas.

A start-up company called Rum and Sargassum intends to install conversion kits in cars this year and scale up testing over the next few years as it looks to scale the innovation. Company founder, Dr. Legena Henry, explains that not only does the technology turn a polluting waste product into fuel, but it  is also much more affordable to convert an existing gasoline powered vehicle then it is to purchase a new electric vehicle. It is particularly true in any lower income country like Barbados where, according to the World Bank, the gross domestic product per capita is just over $20,000. Whereas a new battery electric vehicle would cost 10s of thousands of dollars, the cost of conversion is less than three thousand.

Environment Next is pleased that its first ever equity partnership is with Rum and Sargassum. “The fact that Rum and Sargassum is a local company producing a local solution to a growing environmental problem and helping to get to a zero-fossil future for Barbados made it a natural fit for us” said Environment Next’s President, Eric Carlson. “I love the simple elegance of turning a big problem into a low cost, high return solution.”