Visionary gardener transforms beached seaweed into bricks for sustainable construction

9-year-old boy approaches an unfamiliar police officer and discreetly hands over a note

While tourists who frequent Mexican beaches complain about malodorous piles of seaweed, one Mexican horticulturist views it as a valuable resource.

As much as 40,000 tons of sargassum seaweed, which emits an unpleasant odor similar to that of rotten eggs, must be cleared away by governments in areas like Cancun.

However, Omar de Jesús Vazquez Sánchez has diverted it from landfills to a kiln, where he creates blocks resembling adobe that comply with building regulations.

He established SargaBlock to sell the bricks, which the United Nations Development Program has recognized as a brilliant and sustainable approach to a current environmental problem.

Omar’s journey began in 2015 when he, as a seasoned laborer, realized that affluent people were stuck with the task of cleaning up sargassum from the beaches of the Riviera Maya.

He grew up impoverished, migrated to the United States as a child to become a day laborer, and eventually dropped out of school and developed a drug addiction.

The “Mexican dream,” a combination of his childhood recollections and aspirations to become a gardener in his homeland, was more appealing to him than the American dream, so he relocated there.

His experiences of being an unwanted immigrant and addict provided him with a distinctive perspective on the pungent seaweed.

“When you have problems with drugs or alcohol, you’re viewed as a problem for society. No one wants anything to do with you. They look away,” Omar told Christian Science Monitor in a translated interview.

“When sargassum started arriving, it created a similar reaction. Everyone was complaining, I wanted to mold something good out of something everyone saw as bad.”

As a result of his efforts, his cleaning team has provided employment opportunities for 300 families. It wasn’t long before he realized that the sargassum could be used to create blocks.

The blocks consist of 40% sargassum, and since 2021, he has utilized nearly 6,000 tons of the malodorous seaweed to manufacture blocks that have been employed in constructing buildings throughout the state of Jalisco.

The offices responsible for ecology and environment in Quintana Roo, which encompasses Cancun, have given their approval for the use of SargaBlocks.

These organic-based blocks are known to last for up to 120 years. Omar’s work has been selected by the UN Development Program to be showcased in their global Accelerator Lab broadcast, highlighting its value and ingenuity to the world.

The UNDP aimed to inspire others to take similar action by showcasing Omar’s vision for using naturally occurring pollutants or burdens in construction to address the sargassum problem in the Caribbean.

Omar has been fortunate to donate 14 “Casas Angelitas,” which are homes made of SargaBlock, to families in need. He is very close to achieving his “Mexican dream.”