We live in an era where simply getting rid of things for the sake of getting rid of them with no consideration of its impact is no longer a viable option. The World Bank projects that the world creates 2.1 billion tons of waste each year with that number likely growing to 3.4 tons by 2050. Of the waste produced, 33% is openly dumped and another 36.7% ends up in some type of landfill.
As individuals increasingly explore personal behavioral changes and countries rigorously explore policy interventions, businesses and industries are being called on to play their part in slowing and lowering the levels and overall impact of waste production. The mezcal industry is no exception.
Byproducts of Mezcal Production
According to a report from the World Bank, global agricultural waste production is more than four and a half times that of municipal solid waste (defined as residential, commercial, and institutional waste). As expected, this agricultural waste production is most significant in countries with large farming industries.
In mezcal production, this waste and byproducts come in three main forms:
- heads and tails (also known as puntas y colas) which are portions of distilled mezcal formed at the beginning and end of the process. These liquids are removed due to their high levels of methanol,
- viñaza which is the acidic liquid left after the agave juice has been fermented and distilled, and
- bagazo (also called bagasso, bagaso, bagasse) which is the fibrous remains of the agave plant after it has been crushed and the juice has been extracted.
In small production batches, these byproducts can be easily managed: the heads and tails can be discarded or used for cleaning, viñaza can be poured in a river or field where it will break down in weeks or even days if chemicals are added, and bagazo can be repurposed. However, as production of mezcal increases, so do the byproducts that come from it.
Depending on the specific production methods and type of agave used, for every 1 liter of mezcal produced, there are about 10-12 liters of viñaza and 5-6 kg of bagazo generated. When you consider that there were 8 million liters of certified mezcal produced in 2022 (which does not account for uncertified or unregistered liters), it is easy to see how far reaching the impact can be.
Impact and Management of Liquid Byproducts
If not properly managed, the liquid byproducts from mezcal can have severe consequences on the environment and communities they flow through.
Heads and Tails
Heads and tails contain menthol which is toxic to humans and wildlife in large doses and can cause serious health problems if ingested or inhaled. It can also lead to soil and water pollution if disposed of improperly.
To prevent these negative impacts, these parts of mezcal can be used in cleaning products, safely incorporated into compost or animal feed, used to create alternative energy sources, or properly treated at wastewater treatment plants to decrease the levels of impurities.
Due to its high acidity, corrosive nature, and organic compounds including nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, viñaza can decrease soil fertility, disrupt aquatic ecosystems by reducing oxygen levels in the water, and contaminate groundwater when released into soil and waterways.
To mitigate this, proper waste management can include treating viñaza at wastewater treatment plants to decrease the levels of impurities, repurposing the waste as fertilizer or irrigation, or turning it into an alternative energy source.
The Potential of Bagazo
When it comes to the fibrous remains of agave plants, improper storage or disposal can attract pests and rodents, as well as produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is one of the leading contributors to climate change.
To decrease these impacts, there are three main ways that bagazo can be repurposed:
- Fuel: The dry nature of the fibers makes it a perfectly flammable material. In mezcal production specifically, it can be used to heat the ovens where agave plants are roasted which reduces dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels and energy sources. As fuel, bagazo becomes a local, sustainable, cost-saving, and profitable resource.
- Compost: When mixed with nitrogen-rich materials, the high fiber levels of bagazo can help improve soil structure, fertility, and aeration, increase water retention, and promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms. In this way, bagazo can provide a local and sustainable alternative to synthetic fertilizers that are often filled with harmful chemicals.
- Consumer Goods: From paper and textiles to packaging and food, the strength of bagazo makes for a durable, sustainable alternative to plastics, raw wood items, and other eco-straining goods. Not only can the fibers be pulped, crushed, woven, and combined with other materials but—because it comes from agave—it can also be used in cooking and baking to add fiber and other nutrients.
A Call to Action
There is no Planet B. And with agricultural byproducts only increasing as more agricultural goods are produced, consumers and businesses alike must come together to reimagine our production and consumption cycles.
For consumers this means demanding increased transparency into supply chains and reconsidering what gets purchased and what gets discarded.
For businesses this means dedicating resources to researching, testing, and experimenting with byproducts and collaborating with different industries that can give new life to things they deem as “waste.”
While it would be great to completely eliminate waste products, that is simply not realistic. Rather than choosing between wilful disregard or jaded defeat in the face of global waste, let’s intentionally work to reduce our footprints by repurposing the castoffs we create. Mezcal can be the blueprint.
MGx is building supply chain technology and working with mezcal producers on our platform to:
- track and quantify the waste and byproducts produced through harvesting, distilling, and bottling
- identify and source waste disposal and alternative use options
- develop new ways to minimize the impact of byproducts on the environment
We know a world of intentional production and consumption is possible. Join us as we create it.
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