What is biochar and how is it a tool for sustainable tourism?

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the environmental toll that tourism takes on the planet. Air travel and energy consumption are often the center of these critiques due to their high levels of carbon emissions. Yet other overlooked factors also drive up tourism’s carbon footprint, such as managing organic waste. 

What if this waste could be an environmental solution instead of part of the problem? What if, instead of thinking of it as waste, we looked at it as a valuable resource? One that could be transformed into an eco-friendly product and climate-fighting technology.

In this blog post, we explore one of the innovative usages of organic waste: biochar production. This ancient practice offers a solution for modern-day environmental challenges such as climate change mitigation, waste management, and pollution. It offers a proven way to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, where it remains for millennia. This post delves into the hows and whats of biochar production and its role in shaping a more sustainable future for the planet, communities, and tourism.

What is organic waste and how does tourism generate it?

Organic waste refers to biodegradable material originating from living organisms, including plants, animals, and microorganisms. This encompasses a wide range of materials such as food waste, yard waste, agricultural waste, and other naturally occurring organic materials like wood, paper, and cotton. 

Tourism generates organic waste at various points across its supply chain. Landscaping and grounds maintenance at tourist facilities create green waste, such as grass clippings and tree trimmings. Restaurants, hotels, and events produce food waste from preparation scraps, spoilage, and oversized portions. Organic waste is also produced at earlier stages of the food lifecycle, such as during crop production and processing. Worldwide, more than 5 billion tons of crop residue, such as inedible or nonvaluable stalks, leaves, and roots, is generated each year.

A farmer crouches near a pile of cacao pod husks emptied during harvesting.
A farmer crouches near a pile of cacao pod husks emptied during harvesting.

While some destinations have robust systems to manage organic waste, many countries and regions need more advanced infrastructure to dispose of it sustainably. When organic waste decomposes in landfills, it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. Similarly, when crop residues are burned or left to decay in the fields, they release carbon into the atmosphere. 

While you’re probably familiar with composting as a means to repurpose organic waste, other ways exist to create a circular economy. For instance, animal manure can be turned into biogas and used as a renewable energy source. Another lesser-known method for managing certain types of organic waste is to turn it into an eco-friendly substance called biochar.

What is biochar?

While the word “biochar” may sound technical and complex, when you consider its origin, it makes a lot of sense. The word biochar is a compound of two parts: “bio” meaning life and “char” short for charcoal. As implied by its meaning, biochar is a form of charcoal made from converting organic material into a solid, carbon-rich substance. 

Biochar is active in biological systems such as soil and aquatic environments. It also presents a promising climate solution by creating long-term carbon removals and boosting resilience against the effects of climate change.

While biochar is gaining recent attention for its climate and ecological benefits, it is not a new concept. The use of biochar can be traced back centuries to ancient agricultural practices in the Amazon Basin. There is evidence that indigenous people created rich, fertile soils known as Terra Preta or “black earth.” 

These ancient roots highlight biochar’s proven efficacy in enhancing soil productivity and sequestering carbon. This underscores its potential as a modern tool for environmental sustainability and climate resilience.

How is biochar made?

Biochar is made through a process called pyrolysis, where biomass —like agricultural waste, wood chips, or other organic materials—is heated at high temperatures in an environment with little to no oxygen. This process can take anywhere between 1.5 to three hours depending on the amount and type of biomass. 

The controlled heating breaks down the organic matter into a carbon-rich substance, effectively locking in the carbon and minimizing the release of greenhouse gases.

Sri Lankan farmers load organic waste into a kiln to create biochar for carbon sequestration.
Sri Lankan farmers load cinnamon sticks waste into a kiln to create biochar. © Planboo

It’s important to note that not all organic materials qualify as sustainable biochar feedstocks. For example, if crops are raised purely for biochar production, it may lead to harmful side effects such as the conversion of forests into croplands, food security issues due to land being diverted from food production, strain on local water resources, or community displacement. The most sustainable biochar feedstock is generally considered to be waste biomass that is produced by existing activities. Because agriculture naturally produces a lot of bulky crop residue, it is a reliable source of biomass waste for biochar production. Food waste can also be used for biochar production, but it must be very dry and tends to be done at a much smaller scale. 

Quark Expeditions is one travel company creating biochar as a by-product of innovative waste management. The Micro Auto Gasification Systems installed on their newer ships break down waste, reducing its volume by up to 95% and transforming it into biochar and energy.

What is the difference between biochar and charcoal? 

While biochar and charcoal are both lightweight, black substances, there are differences in their environmental impacts, production processes, and applications. While biochar is created to maximize carbon sequestration and soil health benefits, traditional charcoal is primarily used as a fuel source for heating, cooking, and industrial processes. This difference in end-use affects how they are produced and their impact on the climate. 

Traditional charcoal production generally emphasizes the fuel’s efficiency and burning properties. As such, it relies on incomplete combustion which releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The final product is a highly effective form of fuel. 

Pyrolysis for biochar, on the other hand, aims to minimize the release of emissions and increase carbon retention in the residue. The final product is a stable form of carbon that can enhance soil health and store carbon long-term when added to the soil.

Baskets filled with biochar made out of bamboo waste in Thailand as part of a carbon removal project.
Baskets filled with biochar made out of bamboo waste in Thailand. © Planboo

What is biochar used for?

Biochar is primarily used by farmers as an organic soil additive to improve soil health and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. By mixing biochar with compost before adding it to the soil, remarkable changes occur. Crops grow more abundantly, overcoming previous limitations of soil quality.

Biochar’s porous structure and alkaline pH make it an ideal boost for soils needing rejuvenation. Its sponge-like ability to retain water enhances soil resilience against droughts and heavy rains, ensuring plants receive the hydration they need. Applying biochar also stimulates the growth of beneficial microorganisms which are essential for a healthy soil ecosystem.

The use of biochar is not limited to agricultural production. Biochar can also be used by homeowners and businesses in their gardens. This includes tourism facilities, such as hotels and parks, that maintain extensive landscaped areas. Biochar can be used as a soil amendment in these areas to improve plant growth, contributing to the property’s aesthetic value. WorldMark Portland Waterfront Park uses biochar in the resort’s on-site demonstration garden, educating guests on its importance for soil regeneration and how to produce it themselves. A hotel in Puerto Rico uses biochar in its rain garden to aid in wastewater treatment. Biochar can also be used to support ecosystem regeneration. For instance, the biochar produced by Machu Picchu’s organic waste treatment plant is used for reforestation in the Andean cloud forest. 

How does biochar sequester carbon?

Biochar builds upon natural processes that play a crucial role in controlling the earth’s climate. Biochar takes these natural processes a step further, creating long-lasting carbon removals.

Plants and trees are nature’s carbon removers, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and storing it in their branches, trunks, roots, and leaves. Normally, this biomass would be burned or gradually decay. When this happens, the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere.

Biochar is applied as an organic fertilizer to bamboo groves in Thailand.
Biochar is applied to bamboo groves in Thailand. © Planboo

These traditional carbon sources can become carbon removal powerhouses through biochar production, turning potential emissions into long-term carbon storage. When plant material is transformed into biochar, it essentially converts the stored carbon into a form that is stable in soil. In other words, the carbon in biochar is resistant to natural decomposition processes. This locks the carbon away in the soil for thousands of years, preventing it from returning to the atmosphere. 

The amount of carbon contained in biochar varies, depending on the feedstock used and pyrolysis conditions. For instance, biochar made from woody biomass like rubber can contain up to 90% carbon, while biochar from grass or pineapples may only contain 30% carbon. When measuring carbon removals it’s important to assess the carbon content of the final biochar product and deduct emissions associated with its production, such as harvesting and transport emissions. Typically, producing 1 kilogram of high-carbon biochar removes the equivalent of about two kilograms of CO2 from the atmosphere. 

To put this into perspective, creating 580 kilograms of biochar can remove the same amount of CO2 that is emitted by a one-way flight from San Francisco to New York. This carbon sequestration ability makes biochar a promising strategy for mitigating climate change.

What are the benefits of biochar beyond carbon removal?

Biochar is a multifaceted solution, offering a spectrum of broader environmental and socio-economic benefits beyond its pivotal role in carbon removal. Its application markedly improves soil health and boosts crop yields. This enhanced productivity leads to increased revenues for farmers and greater food security in the face of climate change. By allowing farmers to produce more food on existing land, biochar also reduces the need to convert forests into croplands. This, in turn, reduces greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices and food systems. 

Moreover, biochar tackles water pollution and enables more efficient resource use. Its porous nature aids in water retention, reducing the need for irrigation and helping crops withstand periods of drought. This water-holding capacity is invaluable in regions experiencing increased frequency and severity of drought due to climate change. Biochar improves water quality by absorbing nutrient runoff, reducing erosion, and curtailing the usage of chemical fertilizers, leading to healthier aquatic ecosystems and cleaner drinking water.

Farmers and a Planboo team member plow biochar organic fertilizer into the soil at a pineapple plantation.
Farmers and a Planboo team member plow biochar into the soil at a pineapple plantation. © Planboo

Why are carbon credits essential for scaling up biochar as a climate solution?

While biochar offers significant environmental benefits, its production and application are far from standard practice. Most farmers still burn their agricultural waste and rely on chemical fertilizers. Though biochar production is a value-generating activity, the equipment costs and lack of technical knowledge can be an insurmountable barrier. 

Carbon offsets, or carbon credits, make biochar projects viable, especially in developing countries. Projects that produce biochar can quantify the amount of CO2 emissions sequestered through their activities using standardized measurement methodologies. Each metric ton of CO2 removed equates to one carbon credit. Project developers can then sell these credits to individuals or companies looking to offset their carbon footprint and support credible climate change mitigation projects. 

The sale of carbon credits provides the financial incentive needed to start and sustain biochar projects by turning carbon removal into a revenue-generating activity. This approach not only helps cover the costs of biochar production but also encourages wider adoption among farmers and businesses by making it financially beneficial. The revenue from carbon credits also supports further innovation in biochar technology, making it more effective and affordable.

The income from carbon credits can help achieve more equitable economic outcomes for communities involved in biochar projects, serving as a conduit for redistributing wealth to developing countries. Communities can use or sell the biochar they produce, reducing costs or providing an additional source of revenue. This promotes global equality and empowers local communities, enabling them to reap the benefits of sustainable practices.

As more projects take off and the benefits of biochar become more widely recognized, the demand for carbon credits is expected to grow. This positive feedback loop will encourage more investment and development in the biochar sector.

How can you buy biochar carbon credits?

Tourism companies and travelers should consider buying biochar carbon credits to help offset the carbon footprint of travel and remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Purchasing biochar carbon credits embodies a commitment to a more sustainable future aligning with the growing demand for responsible travel. 

To get started, use our online carbon calculator to calculate the footprint of your travels or explore our CO2 measurement solutions for companies. When you offset carbon with Sustainable Travel International, we spread your contribution across our carefully curated portfolio of climate impact projects. This consists of a diverse mix of projects that tackle climate change via varying approaches, including innovative carbon removal technologies like biochar that need to be scaled up. While biochar credits can be expensive to buy on their own, purchasing them as part of our portfolio makes them more affordable. 

To provide biochar carbon credits, we’ve partnered with Planboo, a project developer that supports carbon removal through biochar production in the tropics. Planboo provides farmers in the tropical world with the necessary tools, technology, and training to convert biomass into biochar. As the farmers produce biochar, Planboo measures the amount of carbon removed, allowing for the creation of certified carbon credits.

To date, our carbon offset program has supported two of Planboo’s projects. In Sri Lanka, the Elpitiya project transforms agricultural waste from tea, cinnamon, and rubber plantations into biochar. After being mixed with compost, the biochar is applied to crops at the plantations and sold to other farmers. In Thailand, the WongPhai project converts bamboo offcuts from the processing of bamboo poles traditionally used for construction, agriculture, and fisheries and turns the waste into biochar. The WongPhai project provides this nutrient-rich biochar to small-scale rice paddies and bamboo farmers in the area.

A Planboo team member explains the biochar production process to the local WongPhai project team in Thailand.
A Planboo team member explains the biochar production process to the local WongPhai project team in Thailand. © Planboo

How do projects measure biochar carbon removals?

Transparency and trust are key to the carbon crediting process. That’s why we only support high-integrity carbon offset projects with accurate and verifiable carbon removable/reduction claims.   

Planboo’s approach to measuring biochar carbon removals is grounded in innovative technology and rigorous science. Through MRVIN, their bespoke digital Measure, Report, and Verify (MRV) platform, Planboo has established a system that’s effective and tailored to the unique tropical environments where they operate.

MRVIN integrates two key technologies: a Greenbox IoT device and a user-friendly Android app. Together, these technologies document the entire journey of carbon from biomass to biochar, ensuring every critical step in the process is meticulously recorded. The Greenbox is a small piece of equipment that attaches to the biochar kiln and automates data collection about how and when the biochar is being made. The smartphone application makes it easy for landowners to input data from their biochar production and application process. The dual-technology approach allows for collecting real-time, accurate data on the amount of carbon removed. The data is then processed by Planboo’s CarbonQuanta Processor (CQP), where over 300 data points are gathered to understand the life cycle of one metric ton of carbon. Along with carbon removals, MRVIN also tracks and assesses their projects’ economic and social benefits.

The carbon credits produced by Planboo’s biochar projects are verified by an independent certifier. This ensures they fulfill the requirements laid out by the Global Artisan C-Sink Standard, a rigorous guideline developed by Carbon Standards International (CSI) for the safe and sustainable production of artisanal biochar. 

How can travel companies raise biochar awareness through immersive experiences?

Travel companies are uniquely positioned to influence how people perceive and interact with the world. By incorporating engaging and insightful travel experiences that highlight environmental impacts and solutions, companies can help inspire sustainability action. 

Agritourism and regenerative travel are becoming increasingly popular as travelers seek immersive and authentic encounters. This growing trend reflects a desire among tourists to connect with the land, learn about the people and techniques behind their food, and leave behind a positive impact. Travel companies have an opportunity to offer educational and impactful experiences that align with traveler interests by integrating biochar experiences into their agritourism offerings.

Planboo is open to requests to arrange tours for buyers of carbon credits so travelers can witness the impact of their projects firsthand. Visitors could explore local agricultural scenes, like Sri Lanka’s tea and rubber plantations or Thailand’s bamboo groves, where Planboo’s biochar projects are located. A visit could include a biochar production facility walkthrough and demonstrations highlighting the technologies and methods used. This enhances the travel experience and spotlights the synergy between tourism, biochar initiatives, climate change mitigation, and regenerative local agriculture.

Learn more about our climate impact projects

Halting climate change is no easy feat. Biochar is just one of the many climate solutions that we need in our arsenal. By offsetting into our Climate Impact Portfolio, you can support biochar and other essential climate mitigation projects like renewable energy, ecosystem restoration and conservation, and innovative climate technologies. Click here to learn more about our portfolio and explore the projects you can support through carbon offsets.

Explore Our Climate Impact Portfolio

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