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Sen. Roberto Prats: Stirring Up The Hornets’ Nest

First term senator brings environmental law to the floor, and hopefully, to the island

By Mercy McCloskey

September 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Among the controversies instigated by first-term Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Senator Roberto Prats, none has stirred more debate than his introduction of a Bottle Redemption Bill. It is meant to.

Prats (PDP at-large) believes Puerto Rico has reached a point in its waste management crisis that it is time to rethink the issue. "While it’s a government issue, it’s a private opportunity," he said during a recent interview.

And to stir the debate in the private sector, Prats submitted Senate Proposal 407, a law to recover drink containers or the Bottle Bill in May. He proposes a five-cent deposit on containers of beer, soft drinks, fruit juice, and milk. The deposit would be charged from the manufacturer to the distributor to the retailer to the consumer, instigating a five-cent mark-up all the way down the line. The consumer has the option of returning the empty container to a redemption center or the store where it was purchased in order to reclaim the nickel deposit. The chain of return would flow all the way back to the manufacturer.

"Here is where our problem lies," Prats said. "Once the empty container is back in the hands of the manufacturer, we have no infrastructure in Puerto Rico to deal with it."

To Prats, it’s the age-old question of ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ "A Bottle Bill would make it the industry’s responsibility as well as government’s to establish the infrastructure," he said.

According to Prats, a Bottle Redemption Bill in Puerto Rico has several positive implications. First, those beverage containers littering island roadside, beaches, and parking lots wouldn’t sit there long if they were worth five cents. A stateside study found cans and bottles represent 40% to 60% of the mainland’s litter. Prats believes it to be higher in Puerto Rico. In the six countries and 10 states where Returnable Container Laws are enacted, litter is considerably reduced.

More importantly, jobs are created. It takes people to handle the Redemptions Centers, it takes people to reprocess the materials.

The program is self-funded. It does not rely on taxes or unfunded mandates. Puerto Rico distributors generate 2.1 billion containers in Puerto Rico annually. The return rate for containers in states with deposits is anywhere from 75% to 96%. If each container in Puerto Rico had a five-cent deposit and only 75% of them were returned for the deposit, Prats estimates that $79 million would flow through the local economy. Of the containers not returned for deposit, the government could collect those nickels.

Just as in the states, redeeming containers in bottle drives could become a popular form of fundraising for many school, church, and community groups.

Beverage distributors and manufacturers quickly rose to object to the Bottle Bill. Amid cries that it creates a ‘new tax’ on the consumer who chooses not to redeem his nickel, several opponents agreed that the bill is needed but first the infrastructure to recycle the materials must be established.

Prats said he met with three of the largest beverage distributors shortly after the annual underwater clean up at Escambron Beach in San Juan earlier this summer. The vast majority of the litter collected by divers year after year is beverage containers. The collected containers from the cleanup were counted and Prats demonstrated to each distributor what share of product–300 containers from one, 212 from another, and 103 from the third–they were responsible for. "We need the companies to deal with this issue," he said.

"We have to hit them in the pocketbook to make them pay attention," he said. "Now they will come back with alternative solutions."

New Progressive Party (PNP) Sen. Kenneth McClintock wants to remove aluminum cans from the proposal. "Puerto Rico already recycles aluminum very successfully," he said.

Yet there is a proliferation of evidence to the contrary along the roadsides and beaches.

Two public hearings have been held thus far and a date for a third hearing is expected to be announced this week.

For Prats, the Bottle Redemption initiative is only the beginning. He has introduced two other environmental bills and co-sponsored a third. One would study the issue of establishing Eco-Industrial zones. Another bill for conservation encumbrances would allow tax benefits for the preservation of undeveloped land for its ecological value. Prats has also co-sponsored a bill to organize the island’s environmental laws into a code of three chapters, one each grouping laws that affect air quality, water quality, and protection of land.

Eco-Industrial Parks

Senate bill No. 416 is a joint resolution in both houses of the legislature to create a board of advisors to study the convenience of establishing Eco-Industrial Parks. It has been referred for study by the Agriculture, Natural Resources, & Energy Committee. Federal Brownfield laws for cleaning up hazardous waste sites allows more federal clean-up funds to states or jurisdictions that establish these types of Eco-Industrial zones.

Prats modeled his proposal after Kalundborg, Denmark where one industry’s waste product is used as a component in manufacturing in another nearby plant. He envisions the function of an Eco-Industrial Park in Puerto Rico as a place where solid waste could be separated and recycled at various neighboring plants.

The immediate benefits are the opportunity for more federal funds to assist in cleaning up three hazardous waste dumpsites identified in Puerto Rico for Brownfield funding, thus saving the local government from part of the amount it is scheduled to pay in for the clean up. "An Eco-Industrial Park presents an incredible Waste-to-Energy opportunity," added Prats.

Conservation Trusts

Senate bill No.258 is Prats’ proposal to create Conservation Trusts. The bill would allow a property owner of a piece of land of ecological value to donate the land to a protective organization such as the Conservation Trust Foundation or to place protective conservation encumbrances on the property so heirs could not develop it. In return for establishing protection or preservation of the property, the owner would be allowed to deduct up to 15% of the value of the property from annual income taxes.

Prats said a bill of this nature is long overdue in Puerto Rico and could have been an effective tool for preserving some of the once lush, green, natural habitats now developed and paved over. The senator said it is even more important now to offer incentives to owners of such properties to preserve what green area is left. For Prats, the economic value of preserving these parcels is hard to estimate because of the obvious value to island tourism along with the environmental preservation.

Environmental Code

One reason local environmental regulations are so hard to follow according to Senator Prats is that they are all over the books.

"We have a Civil Code, we have a Criminal Code, we have an Insurance Code," Prats explained. "Anyone in the insurance industry knows where to go and look to make sure a new product or service is allowed by Puerto Rico law. Yet we have environmental laws all over the place. They are disorganized and you can find one environmental law on the books that defeats the purpose of another one." Prats has found more than one instance of such conflicts and believes it is time to review the all environmental laws with a common line of thought and an eye to be sure federal standards for environmental protection are applied. Prats said an Environmental Code would also make adhering to the laws a far simpler proposition for developers.

Senate bill No. 202, written by Puerto Rico Independence Party Sen. Fernando Martin, would allow the creation of a working group or commission to study and organize a code of environmental law. The bill is co-sponsored by Senators Prats, Norma Burgos (PNP at-large), and Cirilo Tirado (PDP District 6)

Cynics have said it would likely result in a code only environmental lawyers could decifer. But Prats counters with an observation on the current state of affairs where several major construction development projects have been halted and languish in the courts--tying up the financing, peppering the Puerto Rico with incomplete, concrete eyesores--many because opponents have questioned the permits on the basis of one environmental law or another. "If we divide the code by chapters affecting water, land, and air, it would be a lot easier to follow," he said.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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