Hold your Margarita: Tequila Leaves Environmental Hangover

Photo of Tequila Bottle

Photo: Rick Audet.

Tequila has been present in TreeHugger before, whether it's because we noted how farmers were replacing agave crops with corn, or how Australians were trying to make ethanol out of it.

But this one's different, and may just hit you if you're an environmentalist and a big fan of this drink. A report by Emilio Godoy on Tierramerica calls attention to the unsustainable practices in the production of tequila, which involve massive use of water, irresponsible discharge of wastewater on soils, and degradation of forests.

Keep reading for the dirty details.

The Dirty Footprint of Tequila Production

According to specialists from the University of Guadalajara and the Mexican Academy of Sciences consulted by Tierramerica, tequila leaves a bitter taste on water and soil.

Obtaining a liter of this beverage, which comes from the distillation of sugar from the blue agave plant, takes at least 10 liters of water. But that's not it: the contaminated wastewater resulting from the process is discharged -most times without treatment- into streams and rivers.

Other byproducts of every bottled liter of tequila are five kilograms of agave pulp and 7 to 10 liters of 'vinaza' or distillation waste. The latter is acidic and has a kind of oil that makes the soil impermeable. It is usually dumped on lands at high temperatures, making them useless for agriculture. No need to say that it goes deep into the ground and can contaminate water sources too.

Photo of Blue Agave Plant

Blue agave, the plant used to make tequila. Photo: Jay8085.

Even when the Mexican Ministry of Environment has introduced regulations to set limits on the toxic levels allowed on waste and vinaza, few distilleries are following them. Tierramerica states:

According to the standards, one liter of vinaza can generate no more than 150 milligrams of "biochemical oxygen demand" (BOD), a measurement of the quantity of the gas consumed in the biodegradation of the organic material in the water. But each liter of vinaza emits about 25,000 milligrams of BOD, an indicator that permits measurements of water contamination.

One more problem that comes with the increased consume and production of tequila is the degradation of forests. As demand raises, farmers are extending their cultives onto protected areas. This is already happening at the El Nixticuil forest, according to Save the Forest Committee.

Any sustainable solutions at sight? Few.

Some factories are neutralizing the acidity on wastewater, cooling down vinaza before throwing it, and producing compost with agave pulp. Fortunately, there are also two plants to treat vinaza that will begin operating in 2010.

But it's a long way to go, though, as that will certainly not be enough for Mexico's 118 tequila factories, which produce 48 million liters of the beverage in just four months.

More on the subject at Tierramerica:
Tequila Leaves Environmental Hangover
More on Green Drinking:
Where to Get Green Cocktail Supplies
All-Natural Margarita on Cinco de Mayo
Green Drinks - Should You Shop For Organic Spirits?

Related Content on Treehugger.com