Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Mexico: The Sweet Smell of Success

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Mexico: The Sweet Smell of Success

Article excerpt

In Mexico's Jalisco State, a sugar mill has reduced its water consumption by four-fifths and cut its costs

The smell of burning sugar and the lengths of cut cane strewn along the dirt road point the way to the San Francisco Ameca sugar mill in Mexico's Jalisco state, the home of tequila, 73 kilometres from the city of Guadalajara. To the naked eye, the mill seems just like any other, with its tall chimneys, the sound of escaping steam and the comings and goings of its workers. Yet this factory stands apart. Until four years ago, the mill needed 15 litres of water to produce one kilogram of sugar. Now it uses only three litres.

Besides reducing production costs, this "miracle" is of direct benefit to the river Ameca, the mill's main source of supply and one of Jalisco's three largest rivers.

"We have made all these changes at the mill because we are convinced of the need to show concern for the water supply problem and also because water is becoming an increasingly expensive item," says chemist Matilde Osorio Cruz, head of the mill's manufacturing laboratory. In the space of five years, the price of water, a basic ingredient in sugar production, has risen fifteenfold.

An image of St. Francis is displayed near to the gates of the factory, which was founded in 1903. From that time until barely four years ago, sugar production required enormous amounts of water, which was drawn from the river Ameca. At the end of the process, most of the waste water was discharged back into the river and contaminated it. Unlike metals or other types of toxic chemical waste, the by-products of sugar, consisting chiefly of molasses, are eventually absorbed by the river but consume a considerable amount of oxygen, thereby depriving fish and plant life of sustenance.

According to Osorio, as a result of the measures taken this problem has been completely resolved. "The first thing we did was to set up a water treatment plant," she says. "Then we started to use closed circuits in which the water circulates continuously through the different parts of the process without any of it being lost, as used to be the case." In practical terms, the system devised is somewhat similar to that of the bloodstream, in which the fluid circulates and is processed without having to be renewed. …

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