An invasive algae species has been washing up on beaches on the western coast of Central America and the Caribbean — and it’s been happening more and more since 2011.
Sargassum, a floating seaweed, arrives on the shore in huge quantities, bringing with it an awful smell and sand fleas.
In 2015, the Guardian reported that the presence of sargassum in the Caribbean was so prominent that tourists began canceling vacations to avoid the algal blooms. Lawmakers in Tobago even went as far as to describe it as a “natural disaster.”
The invasive seaweed isn’t just spoiling people’s holidays. As the Guardian noted, the sargassum was piling up to nearly 10 feet high on beaches, cutting off boat access, and the abundance of the seaweed in the water was posing a threat to fish species. It can cost millions of dollars to clean up, too.
But Omar Vasquez told Business Insider that when he first saw sargassum, it was “love at first sight.”
I’ve been saying we need to do something useful with all the Sargassum pic.twitter.com/7arqHpoRPZ— Brina (@Love_BrinaRose) July 28, 2023
Vasquez and his team collect the sargassum that has washed up on the shoreline and take it to his workshop, where he begins the process of turning it into bricks. The sargassum is ground down to make a powder, mixed with dirt, combined with water to make a paste, and then put through a machine to create Sargablocks.
Business Insider revealed that Vasquez has sold 20 homes made from Sargablocks so far, and he has built an additional 15 that he has given away to people in need.
Not only does Vasquez make money from hotels for the sargassum cleanup on local beaches, he also earns money from selling the bricks and the resulting homes. He is now looking to license and franchise the Sargablock recipe to other countries.
Sargablocks, while being cheap and sustainable to create, are also strong. Vasquez noted that one of the houses he built with the bricks has been standing for four years despite tropical storms and hurricanes battering it.
Residents also seem pleased with the Sargablock homes, with the Lopez family telling Business Insider that they feel safe and happy in a house that keeps cool in the heat and warm in the cold.
While it’s an innovative and positive use of an invasive seaweed species that would otherwise be left to rot, the presence of sargassum is still troubling and possibly made worse by global heating.
Algal blooms thrive in warmer waters, as a 2022 study from the Unidad Académica de Sistemas Arrecifales has shown, so a warming planet is likely driving the growth and spread.
According to the BBC, sargassum also traps plastic debris that encourages the presence and spread of Vibrio bacteria, causing harm to fish and crustacean populations and a potential risk to humans.
But with Vasquez finding an incredibly helpful use for sargassum, what has been an increasingly negative natural trend in the last decade has been turned into a significant positive, which could help change the construction industry for the better and benefit low-income families.
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