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Environment, Government

Riera To Focus On Recycling

SWMA’s New Executive Director Facing A Heap Of Challenges; Says Waste-To-Energy Is On The Table


January 30, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Guillermo Riera didn’t have the luxury of slowly settling into his new job when he became executive director of the Solid Waste Management Authority (SWMA) on Dec. 23. He had tons of tires on a barge off the coast of Guayanilla, and they’d been there for months.

The former deputy secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Natural & Environment Resources made getting rid of that eyesore his first priority. The SWMA could end up paying over half a million dollars for it, but the tires were finally sent on their way to Alabama on Jan. 15. The total cost of the operation won’t be available until the tires arrive at their destination and are weighed.

Riera, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering from George Washington University, can now tackle other issues at the SWMA, such as the rapidly filling garbage dumps on the island. He intends to draft a master plan that will, among other things, regulate the use of the agency’s funds. He comes to the job with many ideas, and is open to others. "The waste problem needs to be tackled from many angles, and recycling isn’t the only alternative," said Riera.

Formulating a master plan

At the top of Riera’s agenda is getting up-to-date statistics. The SWMA is still relying on an outdated study from the 1990s which found that Puerto Rico generated close to 8,100 tons of waste a day, or 4.9 pounds per person, per day. Estimates agree this estimate is too low.

"Our advances in technology since the early 1990s have been tremendous. Therefore, the composition of our waste is different," said Riera.

He expects a new "Solid Waste Characterization" report to come out this summer. Although the project only recently went to bid, Riera is confident the report will be out on time.

Riera also plans a study on the life span of Puerto Rico’s landfills. According to the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (EQB), 25 of the 29 landfills might be full within 10 years, leaving only four for the island’s 78 municipalities.

"We have had several petitions to expand the existing landfills," said Riera. "They definitely need to be evaluated. In those cases where they meet the environmental requirements, the SWMA will endorse them."

The report should help the SWMA and the landfills’ managers, whether independent contractors or the municipal governments, implement measures to extend the life of the landfills. One current program, Operation Compliance, encourages practices such as compacting waste and using less dirt in the landfills. Riera hopes to give technology a role in the effort to resolve the crisis.

Riera also wants to involve the major higher-education institutions in Puerto Rico in developing strategies for solid waste management. A former auxiliary lecturing professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez, Riera believes universities have a great deal to contribute.

Putting waste to use

Waste management is a $100 million-a-year industry in Puerto Rico. Just one waste-to-energy plant in Puerto Rico could make a substantial dent in the amount of garbage being dumped in the landfills, and could produce enough electricity to supply 5% of Puerto Rico’s energy needs. However, the Calderon administration is opposed to them, because they’re expensive and because it prefers recycling to incineration. Waste-to-energy plants, which are common in Europe and North America, do differ in the amount of pollutants and other byproducts they produce.

"Let’s make this very clear: We won’t incinerate the waste of Puerto Rico to generate electricity," said Riera. However, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of using waste-to-energy plants to reduce the tipping (waste disposal) fees. He intends to examine the waste management techniques of the Spanish Balearic and Canary islands, which he says are topographically and economically similar to Puerto Rico.

Some of Puerto Rico’s municipalities, Caguas among them, have lobbied intensively for waste-to-energy plants. In fact, Caguas is moving forward with its attempt to build a gasification plant, which would convert carbon-containing materials into synthetic gas. This gas can in turn be used as a fuel to generate electricity or steam, or as a basic chemical building block for many uses in the petrochemical and refining industries.

Focus on recycling

Recycling has long been favored as an alternative to dumping solid waste. Each of the island’s municipalities is responsible for implementing its own recycling program (as well as for disposing of its solid waste), which must comply with environmental regulations. The SWMA is responsible for helping to design, providing economic assistance for, and evaluating the recycling programs. In 2002 the agency gave nearly $2 million to the municipalities for recycling.

Riera singled out the municipalities of Caguas, Carolina, and Comerio for meeting their recycling goals and complying with environmental regulations. Others, he said, are in serious violation of environmental standards, though he didn’t specify which.

The SWMA also helps to build and supervise facilities to separate recyclable materials, such as cardboard, plastics, and paper. Riera said there are two unused separating facilities in Puerto Rico, one in Guayanilla and another in Hormigueros. He hopes the municipalities will take advantage of these and begin taking their recyclables there.

Whoever runs a particular separating facility, whether an independent contractor or a municipality, is responsible for selling the recyclable materials. However, the SWMA does provide incentives for separating the recyclables and finding buyers for them. If buyers can’t be found, the recyclables are ultimately dumped in the landfills.

Riera acknowledges that developing a recycling strategy for all of Puerto Rico isn’t easy, principally because there is no consistency in how the municipalities arrive at their statistics for recycling. Standardizing the data collection system is another challenge which Riera intends to tackle.

"We want a clear methodology to determine the real rate of recycling in Puerto Rico," Riera said. "We have already identified who will draft this document, but no contract has been signed yet." The matter is pressing because the Waste Reduction & Recycling Law of 1992, since amended, mandates that Puerto Rico must recycle 35% of its waste by 2006.

Another of Riera’s missions is to set operational guidelines for recycling companies in Puerto Rico, especially since the SWMA aims to promote this nascent industry with incentives and other economic assistance. According to Riera, such funds have been misused in the past.

"We have to regulate the companies to which we provide economic assistance. We have to make sure we know what becomes of the material they process," Riera said. "The tire barge situation should serve as an example to all of us. We have to learn from it."

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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