Bagasse is an organic waste product produced during the pressing of sugarcane to extract sugar and the extraction of juice from sorghum that is used to make alcoholic beverages. While it was originally seen to have no commercial value, it is now used as a source of cellulose to make ethanol fuel, shaped into disposable tableware, and is used for paper production in nations with climates that have few trees, such as in the Middle East. Using bagasse in this manner is seen as beneficial to the environment and as a significant reduction in the waste stream. Workers exposed to bagasse dust in paper mills, however, have frequently developed a chronic lung condition known as pulmonary fibrosis.
Another name for bagasse is megass, from a root term that originally meant rubbish. Instead of creating air pollution by burning it however, new uses for it continue to flourish. It has become the essential ingredient in pressed construction materials used in the building trade, in the manufacture of acoustical tile, and as a source of fiber in animal feed.
Brazil has the leading world economy for bagasse production from sugarcane, followed closely by India. It was estimated in 2004 that Brazil could provide almost 12% of its own electricity needs by using it to generate alcohol-based fuels such as ethanol, or through burning the waste in pellet form directly. The Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) noted that in 2011 that the harvest was projected to be around 595.89 million tons, which is a 10% increase from the previous year.
A large portion of sugarcane is converted to bagasse, since it is the fibrous content of the plant itself. It is estimated that about 30% of sugarcane is recovered as bagasse. Normally this residue was disposed of, but it is now seen as a valuable natural resource. The top sugarcane producing countries that are putting it to use in the manufacture of bioenergy fuels, papermaking, and packaging are Brazil, India, and China, as well as Pakistan and Cuba, accounting for over half of global production combined. Cuba was estimated in 2004 alone to be capable of producing over 25% of its electricity needs from bagasse.
A portion of the bagasse that is produced in sugar mills is burned in the mills themselves as a fuel source. As of 2010, only about 5% to 10% of paper production worldwide was supplied by waste material from agricultural crops such as bagasse instead of trees. The fiber has diverse uses, however, and is considered of an equal quality to fiber produced in soda pulping, with tree wood as the raw ingredient. The short, pith fibers that are removed from the sugarcane process are the finest, and are sold for a variety of paper uses, including to make tissue paper, writing paper, and newsprint. The fiber is also seen as an environmentally friendly substitute for styrofoam packaging for food containers, and they have been shown to biodegrade in compost in one to four months, unlike plastic-based packaging, which can endure for centuries in landfills.