Real Talk or Hype: Can we use Sargassum?

We take a deep dive to find opportunities and overcome challenges of Sargassum in the region

April 17, 2023


If you live in the Caribbean, you have probably come across Sargassum – the floating seaweed that has been inundating our shorelines since 2011 with every sign of continuing for the foreseeable future. Since the emergence of sargassum inundations as major external shocks affecting the Caribbean, there has been significant interest and active research in using or ‘valorising’ sargassum. This includes both academic research and business-oriented research and development. Most the work focuses on the processes for converting the sargassum, as a raw material, into commercially viable products.  There is some indication that sargassum could be used as a raw material in a wide range of products, including among others, fertilizer, biofuels, building materials and soap.  This very dynamic ‘sargassum space’ is seeking to create a range of products and services marketed as “solutions” to the sargassum problem, and there is a potentially receptive market, with governments and stakeholders keen for solutions.  However, so far, interest and offerings have not translated into tangible outcomes. 

Therefore, the real question is not ‘can we find uses for sargassum?’ – because clearly we can – but rather ‘can we implement the use of sargassum at a large enough scale to alleviate the problem?’  For those trying to understand and find an answer to this question, the dynamic nature of the space becomes part of the challenge – information overload, noise and hype can obscure reality. 

To gain some clarity, this question was at the heart of the Real Talk or Hype panel discussion, under the Japan-funded Improving Sargassum Management Capacities Project implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Multi-Country Office for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. The panel discussion was part of the UWI CERMES Sargassum Symposium which spanned two days. During the session the panel looked at the issue of scale and unpack the key factors in the feasibility of upscaling. 

With 4 experts bringing varying perspectives covering Sargassum Science – Prof.  Hazel Oxenford of UWI CERMES; the logistics of harvesting, storage and transport – Dr Mohammed Nagdee of UNDP, Economics – Sen. Crystal Drakes and, Business and product development - Mark Hill - CEO of Export Barbados, the discussion brought some ‘real talk’ to cut through the hype and noise. Let’s take a look at some of the key points[i] raised:


So much seaweed, so little usage

When it comes to the amount of Sargassum arriving on our shores, by some back of the envelope math, Barbados’ most exposed coastlines can receive as much as 23,000 metric tonnes (approx. 1600 dump trucks full) of sargassum per day during peak inundation. There is currently no use or operation that can approach this scale. Our panel asked, how does a small SIDS economy like Barbados, with a small manufacturing base, reliance on imports, and high cost of labour mount an industrial operation on the scale required to match this problem?


Sargassum isn’t stable 

Sargassum is a living resource that moves around, unlike, for example, a mineral resource that remains non-perishable in a fixed location. There is high variability in supply dynamics and material properties which translate to high uncertainty and risk from a business standpoint. Sargassum arrival on beaches varies in time, space and quantity. The 1600 dump trucks per day is not every day - some days there is no Sargassum. In addition to this, the chemical composition varies, and there are concerns about possible contaminants that seaweed may pick up as it travels across the ocean before it reaches our shores.


How “Free” is Sargassum

While the staggering influx of Sargassum seems like a gold mind waiting to be exploited, there are several factors that need to be considered. The logistics around harvesting, transportation (and storage) is possibly the most overlooked aspect of the problem. While the Japan-funded Improving Sargassum Management Capacities Project will assist with this management, harvesting faces challenges with high energy sea conditions, rugged coastlines with difficult access. Additionally, storage may be needed to address supply variations. This must all be done sustainably, i.e. measures to protect against pollution / leaching at any storage facility. Each step has cost, and each challenge, each layer of complexity increases the cost. So, what seems on the face of it to be a 'free' resource may not in effect be free. 


Cost or Cash Cow: The Sargassum Conundrum 

One panelist suggested that if it was lucrative to exploit sargassum at large scale, it would be happening. However, on the flip side, the concern was expressed that if the paradigm shifts to feasibility, then sargassum can be exploited by external parties with no benefit to the countries impacted. Can we solve the Sargassum Conundrum? The main barrier isn’t if things can be made from Sargassum, they can be, but is the cost of overcoming the uncertainties and logistical challenges to develop an industry that can use sargassum at a large enough scale, worth it? The panel didn’t have the answer but invited the audience to consider that if using sargassum is to be part of the solution, then we need to think bigger and look at the whole picture. The quantities of sargassum inundating our shores will not be consumed with small scale uses, so we must focus on finding solutions along the entire value chain, from harvesting to product distribution.


Where Sargassum is a star

Our panel suggested that possibly the best use is in activated charcoal products. but the variability in supply creates too much uncertainty and risk. Sargassum on its own is not 'bankable.' It can be used as one input in processes that use multiple inputs - e.g. alongside seaweed or other biomass - this helps to even out the uncertainties. However, the discussion returned to the ever-recurring problem - does it rise to the level of using the sargassum at scale? 

So, what can we do? Knowledge is power and collaboration is key! Partnerships are needed to examine the problem from all angles. While the panel discussion started the conversation, it is far from finished. Academic research can be conducted to be more applicable and practical to meet the needs of policy makers and practitioners. Context is important – as shown by the experience shared where investors were scared off by a particular set of findings.  At the same time, clear determinations on feasibility are helpful – if something is not feasible, this means we can abandon it and focus resources where they are needed.

While the discussion raised many more questions - including, what type of industrial model is needed? does the business operation take the lead on extraction - dealing with harvesting and transport logistics? can public sector investment intervene to de-risk, given that alleviating a 'public-bad' amounts to delivering a public good? - the one answer that was clear, is that we all have to work together to find the way forward! 



[i] The views and opinions expressed are a summary of the points raised during the panel discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNDP Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.