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No Time To Waste

After three and a half years, the Calderon administration is almost ready to launch a $1.4 billion, 20-year solid-waste management strategy


May 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

A Last-Ditch Effort

Painfully slow progress toward resolving Puerto Rico’s solid-waste crisis has pushed consensus for a $550 million waste-to-energy plant that could resolve one-third of the problem

Puerto Rico’s solid-waste management problem has been critical and is getting worse, according to Carl Axel Soderberg, chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Caribbean office.

"Solid waste could overtake water as Puerto Rico’s No. 1 environmental problem. We have a crisis in the making," said Soderberg.

The Calderon administration has devised a "Strategic Plan for the Management of Solid Waste in Puerto Rico" to address the looming shortage of landfill space, a plan that will cost $1.4 billion over 20 years. However, the strategy, three years in the making and only published in March, is still awaiting Gov. Sila Calderon’s signature before becoming public policy.

The plan doesn’t provide for any new landfills, or for any other bold measure to address the issue. Angel Vladimir Maldonado, a spokesman for the Solid Waste Management Authority (SWMA), explained that the plan is strategic, not operational, as the nuts and bolts of resolving the solid-waste issue would be left to the municipalities, which would receive financial and technical support from the SWMA.

The strategy counts on an increase in recycling, which officials have talked about for more than a decade, to extend the life span of existing landfills. While the new plan does provide for funding to help municipalities’ education and recycling programs and for islandwide cleanup campaigns, much of the strategy is devoted to additional study of the problems, changes in laws and regulations, and vague declarations to promote further actions.

In 2001, the Calderon administration scrapped the solid-waste management plan devised by the Rossello administration, which relied on a complex infrastructure system to transport, separate, and dispose of garbage. It favored instead a system that returns much of the responsibility for garbage disposal and recycling to the municipalities.

The cost of the government’s new strategy would be $29.4 million in the first year, rising gradually to a cumulative $63.8 million in the fifth year. In 20 years, the total would be $1.4 billion, 50.5% of which would be associated with activities of the SWMA.

Recycling would require $16.5 million in the first year, increasing to $39.9 million in the fifth year and to $45.4 million in the 10th year. The recycling cost over two decades would be $805 million. The infrastructure area would require a budget of $9.7 million in the first year, increasing to $21 million in the fifth year; the cost over 20 years would be $484.6 million. Waste reduction is estimated to cost $2.6 million in the first year and would rise to $7.4 million over 20 years.

To critics, the election-year release of the Calderon administration’s strategy demonstrates less a sense of urgency to address a critical issue and more a pitch for votes. "The Popular Democratic Party [PDP] is showing the same lack of political will, lack of creativity, and lack of interest as the New Progressive Party [NPP] before it," said Jorge Fernandez Porto, environmental adviser to the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP).

Too much garbage, too little space

The island’s 31 landfills are running out of space to accommodate the estimated 3.6 million tons of waste produced each year. A 2003 Environmental Quality Board report estimated that 11 of the landfills had life spans of three years or less and five had life spans of up to five years. Only five were estimated to have life spans of more than 10 years.

In truth, officials don’t really have a scientific grasp of the urgency of the problem, because a complete study of landfill life span hasn’t been conducted in more than 10 years, said Maldonado. The SWMA will have a better idea in August, after it processes information from a survey that relies on satellite imagery conducted by Malcolm Pirnie consultants, he said.

In the meantime, the people of Puerto Rico remain prolific consumers, discarding 4.7 pounds of garbage per person, per day, a rate almost double that of some European countries.

Deborah Rivera, environmental director for the municipality of Carolina, said the island’s municipalities are capable of handling the solid-waste problem as long as the SWMA plays an important role in giving technical, financial, and educational support to their programs. "The SWMA has the function under law to lend support," she said.

The SWMA’s strategy has budgeted for education campaigns and other measures such as helping municipalities design curbside-recycling programs, allocating $11.3 million to the program in the first year.

In recent weeks, the plan to dispose of 1.1 million tons of garbage a year, almost a third of the island’s trash, at a waste-to-energy gasification plant in Caguas has gained steam. Sponsored by Caribe Waste Technologies, a subsidiary of Virginia-based Interstate Waste Technologies, the plant has already picked up the endorsement of the SWMA, which has agreed to be the project’s sponsoring agency once the permitting process has begun in earnest. Environmentalists point out, however, that the plant could serve as a disincentive to recycling.

Municipalities carry the load

SWMA Executive Director Guillermo Riera disagrees with Soderberg that the island’s solid-waste management problem is reaching crisis proportions. "I don’t characterize it as a crisis, but it is a goal we have to begin reaching, and we have to look for alternatives," he said.

Riera said Malcolm Pirnie also is studying the possibility of increasing the size of some landfills to extend their life spans. Under the Rossello plan, the SWMA directed the municipalities on where to take their solid waste, which involved a labyrinth of transfer stations, recycling centers, and composting centers, where trash was routed before what was left reached the landfills.

"It doesn’t make any sense for a bureaucrat in San Juan to tell a municipality where to take its garbage," said Riera. "The municipalities know better because each is different."

Riera criticized the Rossello strategy as too dependent on the construction of infrastructure projects and too reliant on the SWMA to reach the recycling goal. In 1992, the Legislature passed Law 70 to mandate that 35% of Puerto Rico’s trash had to be recycled by 1995. The law was amended on two occasions to extend the deadline, which now stands at 2006.

According to Soderberg, the current recycling rate hovers around 10%, though SWMA officials claim that more recent efforts to boost recycling have raised the rate to about 15%. Soderberg noted that a look at SWMA’s "Solid Waste Characterization Study" shows that as much as 75% of the island’s waste could be recycled.

To help municipalities reach the goal, the new strategy would provide funds for the development of curbside-recycling programs; more clearly define municipalities’ responsibilities in the recovery of recyclable material; provide funding for recycling infrastructure while giving funding preferences to municipalities with advanced recycling programs, and help to establish composting programs.

A number of measures would be taken to raise awareness among the public about recycling, including introducing recycling education into public schools’ curriculum. Another would see a law passed requiring that the construction of all new buildings include spaces for recycling containers in addition to conventional garbage cans. The strategy also provides for measures to reduce the amount of waste at the source, stimulate markets for recycled products, and involve citizens more in resolving the solid-waste management problem.

Carolina a recycling model

The municipalities of Carolina and Guaynabo, which both have well-developed recycling programs, show what can be accomplished with a little political will.

Carolina’s recycling program is becoming a model for other municipalities, thanks in large part to its educational component. "Environmental education has to be No. 1," said Rivera. "Some people call landfills crematoriums; they don’t even have a notion of how garbage is disposed of."

In 1999, Carolina established the first of its recycling deposit centers, and the following year it opened its recyclable-goods processing plant next to the town landfill. Over the past year, municipality officials have gone door-to-door and held town-hall-type meetings to introduce the curbside-recycling program in which the municipality collects different recyclables on different days of the week.

On Mondays, lawn clippings and other vegetation are collected; Tuesdays are reserved for metals; Wednesdays for plastic; Thursdays for glass; and Fridays for paper. The recyclables are then taken to the recycling center, where vegetation is composted, and paper, plastic, glass, and metals are packed for shipment and sale in Spain.

In the past year, 40,000, or about 20%, of Carolina’s 200,000 residents have been introduced to the system. Rivera estimates the town is now recycling about 12% of its garbage.

She attributes the relatively low recycling rate to the fact that islandwide recycling figures include large-volume industrial and construction recycling. Also, recycling goals are harder to reach in a large municipality such as Carolina than in a smaller town such as Comerio, which recently announced that it had reached the 35% recycling goal.

A magic bullet: Waste-to-energy plant

After more than a decade of discussion and anticipation, the proposal to build a waste-to-energy gasification plant in Caguas that promises to dispose of 1.1 million tons of garbage a year–a third of the island’s production–is clearly gaining favor.

Evidence the proposal has legs is that the SWMA has agreed to be the project’s sponsoring agency, once Caribe Waste Technologies files its location consultation with the Planning Board. Also, the company and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) have named committees to negotiate the purchase of the 86 megawatts the plant will generate from gasifying garbage.

Riera agreed to have his agency sponsor the project after visiting plants in Germany and Italy that use similar technology. He came away impressed. "That project has a future," he said.

Caribe Waste Technologies recently had a protocol meeting with the Environmental Quality Board to define the permitting process for the plant; a similar meeting is planned with the Planning Board.

Caribe Waste Technologies CEO Mark Augenblick said the company has obtained financing for the plant. "We have a preliminary financing commitment from a major New York investment bank," he said.

The bank has studied the project and run full economic models, said Augenblick. At current interest rates, the plant would cost around $550 million, but the interest rates won’t be locked in until all the contracts are signed.

Jose Molinelli, an environmental science professor at University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, said a waste-to-energy solution could work against the other reduction, reuse, and recycling measures. "These plants tend to require a lot of garbage to be economically feasible, so the incentive is to create more, not reduce, garbage," he said. "Waste-to-energy should be an option after you’ve taken measures to reduce, reuse, and recycle."

Augenblick takes pains to explain that the technology used to process the garbage isn’t incineration, which leaves a highly toxic ash that must be disposed of in a toxic-waste dump. Instead, it is a process that yields 56% natural gas and 44% recyclable minerals.

Because of transportation considerations, said Augenblick, Caribe Waste Technologies is trying to contract the municipalities of Caguas, Bayamon, and San Juan to provide waste for the plant. Between them, the three would provide garbage for 75% to 80% of the plant’s capacity. The company is completing a draft waste-processing contract for Caguas that will serve as a template for contracts with other municipalities.

"We’re trying to nail those three down and then see which others we’ll approach," said Augenblick.

Caribe Waste Technologies has letters of intent supporting the project from Caguas and San Juan. Their mayors, William Miranda Marin and Jorge Santini, respectively, belong to the PDP and the NPP, which Augenblick said demonstrates bipartisan support for the project.

"The company’s goal is to sign a power-purchase agreement by this July, finish the permitting process in July 2005, and have the plant operational by July 2007," he said.

Prepa has approved another waste-to-energy company to negotiate a power-purchase agreement, C-Tek Inc., though the sides haven’t yet named negotiating teams. The C-Tek plant would be in Barceloneta. Yet another company, the Coloso Consortium, has proposed building a waste-to-energy plant in Aguada, but no negotiations for a power-purchase agreement are on the horizon.

Nevertheless, the approval to construct the Caribe Waste Technologies plant would by itself resolve a huge chunk (almost one-third) of the island’s solid-waste problem.

NPP gubernatorial candidate Pedro Rossello has said a waste-to-energy solution is a No. 1 priority and has proposed reducing the quantity of trash put in landfills by 70%, regionalizing landfills and reducing their number, creating recycling parks to generate recyclable products for resale, and launching education campaigns to involve the public in resolving the problem.

PDP gubernatorial candidate Anibal Acevedo Vila would increase assistance to municipalities, create recycling centers to take recycling to 100,000 additional homes, put a recycling program in every school, and strengthen the program of recycling-industry incentives with the goal of creating private investment of $200,000 and 3,000 new jobs.

PIP gubernatorial candidate Ruben Berrios has said the solid-waste problem is principally one of political will. He has pledged to establish the necessary policies to increase recycling by 20% in 2005 and by an additional 10 percentage points each year through 2008.

The ‘Strategic Plan for the Management of Solid Waste in Puerto Rico’ establishes programs and goals to address the island’s solid-waste problem. Following are some highlights of the strategy:

Waste Reduction

  • Provide companies with tax exemptions of $1,000 annually to reduce packing material.
  • Promote the establishment of industries dedicated to the repair of equipment to extend its useful life.
  • Carry out publicity campaigns aimed at the public and the private sector.


  • Educate citizens through publicity campaigns aimed especially at driving home the point that the consumer is directly responsible for the generation of waste and so is a fundamental part of the solution to the problem.
  • Publish, on a quarterly basis, the location of recycling centers.
  • Give the Solid Waste Management Authority (SWMA) the power to determine the percentage of a municipality’s budget that must be directed to the recycling program.
  • Amend the Municipal Autonomy Law to make municipalities responsible for the reduction, reuse, and recycling of waste.
  • Help municipalities fund residential curbside-recycling programs.
  • Clearly define the responsibilities of municipalities for the recovery of recyclable materials and the management of solid waste in general.
  • Promote the self-sufficiency of municipal recycling programs; give preference in funding the programs to municipalities that demonstrate an advanced degree of implementing the programs.
  • Stimulate the search for external financing; establish priority areas of investment for the assignation of funds.
  • Make recycling a priority, not a secondary consideration, in the recovery of solid waste.
  • Provide for a cost-benefits analysis to demonstrate the social benefits of the recycling program.
  • Broaden the reach of recycling projects and activities; establish fees for collecting domestic waste.
  • Establish recycling programs in all government agencies and public corporations.
  • Promote the purchase of products made of recycled materials through publicity campaigns and require public agencies to purchase such items.
  • Increase the production of compost by establishing municipal composting programs.
  • Incorporate recycling into the school curriculum and establish a market for recycled tires.


  • Allocate $16.5 million to help develop bio-gas, bio-reactor, and anaerobic digestion projects.
  • Identify land and structures available for disposal programs.
  • Strengthen the capacity of municipalities to collect, transfer, transport, and dispose of municipal waste.
  • Identify necessary municipal infrastructure.
  • Establish installations to make management of recyclable material viable.
  • Make improvements to existing infrastructure.
  • Give technical assistance to installation operators.
  • Ensure existing installations operate at designed capacities; encourage the development of alternative technology.
  • Establish uniform tariffs for the final disposal of waste.
  • Build installations for the management of construction waste.

Recycling markets

  • Use tax incentives and economic assistance programs.
  • Offer technical support to the proponents of potential development projects.
  • Study the local and international recycling market and seek the advice of recycling brokers.
  • Build industrial parks dedicated to the processing and manufacture of recovered materials; promote the increase in the demand for articles manufactured with recyclable materials.

Citizen participation

  • Provide education on the management of solid waste to ensure effective citizen participation.
  • Reach agreements with television and radio stations for the broadcast of educational information; encourage community participation in the phases of planning and operation of programs and projects.
  • Allow the community to participate in the process of evaluating pilot projects; establish Internet forums to allow citizens to communicate with SWMA officials.

Composition of Solid Waste in Puerto Rico

More than 75% of solid waste is recyclable

Paper 21%

Rotting matter 15%

Other 13%

Glass 12%

Ferrous metals 10%

Garden waste 10%

Plastic 9%

Carton 5%

Fine sand 3%

Nonferrous metals 2%

Type of Solid Waste in Puerto Rico in 2003

Municipal (domestic) waste 71.5%

Construction debris 18.7%

Special waste 5.3%

Garden waste 3.9%

Automobiles 0.6%

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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