The Hidden Potential of Sargassum Seaweed: From Disaster to Climate Solution

Every year, the Caribbean faces a devastating challenge as 20 million tonnes of sargassum seaweed wash up on its shores. This toxic flotsam, caused primarily by fertilizer runoff and climate change, coats beaches, disrupts tourism, and emits harmful gases into the atmosphere. While Mexico bears the brunt of this environmental crisis, countries from Brazil to Puerto Rico and even Turkey are grappling with the annual sargassum seaweed blooms.

The impact is severe. When the seaweed hits the shorelines, beaches become virtually unusable, leading to a significant decline in tourism. In fact, the Mexican state of Quintana Roo experienced a staggering 30-35% drop in tourism since the blooms began. Caribbean countries have also spent approximately $120 million (U.S.) in 2018 alone to combat the waste.

Aside from its immediate consequences, the sargassum bloom poses a more insidious threat. The seaweed is piled into landfills, where it decomposes and releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than CO2 during its initial 20 years in the atmosphere. Additionally, the sargassum bloom emits 8.4 megatons of CO2 equivalent annually, according to Carbonwave, a U.S. start-up.

Carbonwave has a remarkable vision for transforming this ecological crisis into an opportunity. By harvesting the largest seaweed bloom on the planet, the company aims to reduce emissions from methane while creating sustainable products that are not reliant on fossil fuels. Its founder and CEO, Geoff Chapin, believes that they can make a meaningful impact on the environment.

Currently, Carbonwave offers three products that are gaining significant traction. SeaBalance is an oil-in-water emulsifier with diverse cosmetic applications. Sarga Agriscience, the company’s subsidiary, produces natural fertilizer that enhances crop yields and improves soil health. The product line is completed with a vegan leather alternative that avoids the use of plastics or petrochemicals.

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For every five tonnes of sargassum seaweed collected by Carbonwave, their products sequester 915 kilograms of CO2 equivalent, replace 225 kilograms of plastic, and naturally fertilize six square kilometres of land. Although the company is still in its early stages, Chapin has ambitious plans to scale up operations, sequester massive amounts of greenhouse gases, and revolutionize multiple industries simultaneously. He sees the devastating sargassum blooms as an opportunity in disguise.

What sets sargassum apart is its unique ability to draw down carbon. Unlike other seaweeds, it can float freely anywhere, without the need for an ocean-based infrastructure. It self-replicates and grows rapidly, with a high carbon-to-nitrogen fixation ratio. As it grows, it absorbs a significant amount of carbon compared to other seaweeds.

As Carbonwave seeks new corporate partnerships, expands its operations, and enters the carbon credit market, it is poised to transform the lives of coastal communities and turn a natural disaster into a climate solution. Geoff Chapin emphasizes that addressing this scourge is not just a moral imperative but an opportunity to accelerate the circular economy.

The potential of sargassum seaweed to combat climate change and fuel sustainable industries is truly remarkable. By harnessing its power, Carbonwave aims to create a positive impact on our environment and create a more sustainable future for all.

Ames Farm Center