In The Make Lemonade Department...

People in Cancun make the most of a bad situation

Sargassum is a seaweed. An ugly brown stinky seaweed. Huge quantities of the crap have washed up on beaches around Cancun and parts of the Caribbean this season, which has cost millions of dollars to haul away. It has also negatively impacted tourism, as you can’t sit on the beach alongside the awful stuff because of the stinko, and it is in some places so high, it towers over peoples’ heads.

But now one guy has found a use for it, a use that might even pay somewhat towards its removal. He has pressed it into bricks, dried it out, and built a house out of it. It really doesn’t stink very much once its dry, he says. Really.

In another town nine-year-old school student from Cozumel, Quintana Roo, has come up with an innovative use for sargassum: she’s making paper out of it. Victoria Curiel told the newspaper El Financiero she came up with the idea to use the smelly brown seaweed as part of a paper-making process while walking her dog and seeing discarded notebooks in the sargassum on the beach.

After a few unsuccessful attempts, Curiel did some online research and realized that she needed to mix cellulose from the nopal cactus or the maguey plant with the sargassum in order for it to be turned into paper.

The process she ended up with involves collecting the seaweed and letting it dry in order to get rid of any microorganisms it is carrying. This helps damp down the stink, too. The sargassum is hydrated again using a water solution containing salt and other additives which eliminate the rest of the stink.

The next step is to turn the seaweed into a paste into which recycled paper from the discarded notebooks is mixed. Finally, Curiel turns the mixture into paper, which she uses to create new notebooks featuring her own designs. She is now selling them at local artisans’ markets for between 10 and 80 pesos each.

“Here on the island I live with my mom but my mom has a back injury that prevents her from working so I had been very worried about our economic situation and my future university studies,” she said. “I want to keep growing [my business] and helping the planet so why not create my own notebook and paper production company worldwide?,” she added.

Curiel is now planning on using another unlikely material to produce paper: cigarette butts. There are plenty of those on the island made famous by hosting thousands of cruise ship passengers every year.