Biochar makes agricultural waste management profitable

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Biochar agricultural waste management

For every bumper crop of an edible or valuable agricultural commodity, a farm or processing facility will end up with a considerable quantity of residual material that cannot be sold or reasonably consumed. Sometimes this agricultural waste will present a small inconvenience, but in other cases, it can create a substantial expense or even a health hazard. 

One of the best ways to convert this liability into an asset is by turning the unwanted biomass into biochar. Very similar to charcoal in most respects, biochar has a high concentration of carbon and makes an excellent soil additive, increasing fertility and producing higher yields. When you add significant amounts of biochar to the soil, you are actually creating a carbon sink, and that means you can also be generating high-value carbon removal credits. 

What is agricultural waste?

Agricultural waste comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but it generally consists of undesirable leaves, stems, branches and shells. As cotton is harvested for its soft, fibrous flowers, tremendous volumes of sticks and stems are left behind and discarded. The cultivation of grains, including rice and wheat, results in tons of excess stalks and straw. Nuts and bean crops, like coffee and cocoa, have shells or husks that pile up fast, and at industrial levels of production, quickly grow into mountains.

Biochar closeup
High-quality biochar can work wonders for the soil while sequestering significant volumes of carbon.

Managing agricultural waste

The most efficient farmers will collect as much of this agricultural residue as possible and try to make use of it. Leftover straw from grain can become livestock feed or bedding for the stables. A portion of the residual wood from a rubber farm might be sold off as firewood.

In many parts of the world, however, and especially in the tropics, the systems are not in place to handle so much waste effectively, and the quantities of biomass are unmanageable. Consequently, vast quantities of waste remain in the field to rot, or worse, the piles are simply burned and reduced to ash.

These solutions – if they can even be called that – have a disastrous environmental impact. When left behind to rot, the agricultural remnants will slowly decompose and release carbon dioxide and other more dangerous greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide. These are among the most serious contributors to climate change. Even worse, a massive bonfire can eliminate the waste far more quickly, but release all those emissions in one calamitous outburst. The plumes of smoke affect the air quality in ways that are obvious to the eyes and the lungs, without the need for rigorous scientific data. 

Biochar for waste management

As an alternative to slow decomposition or rapid incineration, turning waste biomass into biochar results in a product that is incredibly valuable for improving the soil. Through the process of pyrolysis, essentially cooking the biomass at a very high temperature in an oxygen-deprived environment, you can produce a charcoal-like substance that serves as a substitute for fertiliser.

While conventional fertilisers effectively deliver nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) to the roots of your plants, biochar actually improves the conditions in the soil surrounding the roots, leading to a much healthier overall ecosystem without such a need for those expensive fertilisers. 

The microscopic nooks and crannies on the biochar create an enormous surface area that acts like a sponge, attracting millions of beneficial microbes that keep the soil teaming with life. Additionally, biochar helps with moisture retention in the soil, reducing the need for irrigation. Healthy and well-balanced soil also needs fewer additives in the way of pesticides and fungicides.

Farmers have been making use of biochar in different ways for thousands of years, through slash-and-burn agriculture and by dumping the burnt coals from their fireplaces into their gardens. But only recently have gardeners and agronomists really come to appreciate the serious merits of this simple additive.

Residue into Revenue
Instead of leaving agricultural waste in the field to rot, you can turn it into a valuable product that also generates carbon removal credits.

Carbon Removal Credits mean that you’re turning waste into cash

Not only does biochar provide a rich blessing to your topsoil, but it also fixes the stored carbon as a solid rather than allowing it to release as a gas. This activity is beneficial for both the planet and your pocketbook. And how often can you say that? 

Plants and trees, as we know, absorb and collect CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. If that plant matter rots and decays, the CO2 goes back into the atmosphere, along with other greenhouse gases. But biochar stores that CO2 in a solid form, and when it’s added to the soil, the carbon will stay there for 100 to 1,000 years.

At Planboo, we’ve developed some highly specialized MRV tools to measure, report and verify the quantities of carbon that get removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil, in what we call a Carbon Sink. In turn, we are able to help farmers and landowners generate Carbon Dioxide Removal Credits (CDRCs). 

International organizations and treaties like the Paris Agreement have created this carbon offset trading system whereby projects that are removing carbon can earn credits and sell them to companies that are trying to offset their own high emissions. On the one side, this acts as a tax against the polluters. But on the other side, it creates a vital financial incentive for research and innovation.

Biochar production is a perfect example of a project that has wide-ranging environmental benefits, but isn’t necessarily profitable enough for most farmers to engage in. Carbon credits tilt the playing field to make these operations greener in terms of both carbon removal and monetary payoff.

Turn your green waste into greenbacks

If you’re managing a farm or a plantation and producing more than several hundred tons of biomass waste per year, you may want to give serious thought to converting your residue into revenue. Begin by taking a look at our list of minimum requirements for a successful biochar project. And if you feel that you can satisfy these requirements, then please fill out a short online questionnaire, and one of our supplier liaisons will contact you shortly. 



Fred Hornaday, founder of Bambu Batu, is a leading voice in the bamboo industry. He's been working in the industry since 2006 with a network that spans all six continents.

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2 Responses

  1. Fantastic! But interested go learn why, if these are high quality carbon removal credits why not get them certified and issued by a mainstream standard?

    Also interested on the split of the $200/ton between your company and the landowners, communities etc.

    1. Hi Brett, Thanks for asking. In the realm of biochar, the EBC (European Biochar Certificate) and CSI (Carbon Standard International) are pretty widely used and well respected. We actually worked with them directly to help craft the Artisan Professional standard which is designed very specifically for low income countries and low tech pyrolysis. It’s in this context that we feel we can make the greatest social impact. In other scenarios, we do work with the Puro Earth Earth standard. But Puro Earth and Verra have a much high certification cost, which can act as a barrier to entry for many small and medium-sized producers. The price of carbon removal credits remains pretty volatile, but we typically do something like an 80%-20% split, in favor of the producer, which covers the administrative costs of establishing the projects and overseeing the transactions.

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Carbon Removal

To keep the world within 1.5 degrees of global warming and to avoid global catastrophe – we now need to not only drastically reduce our emissions but also rapidly remove them too.

However, there is very little carbon removal today with less than 50,000 tonnes of CO2 removed in 2021. It’s estimated we need to remove 10% of Global GHG emissions by 2030, which is equal to 5 billion tonnes per year. Carbon removal needs to grow 100,000 times bigger. 

Planboo is a nature-based carbon removal company, using bamboo-the fastest growing plant in the world. Like all plants, through photosynthesis bamboo absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. Because it grows so fast, it’s carbon removal potential is huge. We develop projects in Sri Lanka with local partners and supply high quality and high integrity carbon removal credits for the carbon market.