While blessed with tremendous natural beauty, Puerto Rico has attracted attention recently due to its $70 billion debt and the rapid spread of the Zika virus. But the small island’s problems do not end there. For years, trash has been piling up in Puerto Rico.
Ironically dubbed “the land of enchantment,” Puerto Rico has seen its landscapes overtaken by expanding landfills. The 9,000-square-kilometer island produces more than 11,100 metric tons of solid waste a day and fills more than 13.8 million cubic meters of landfills annually. Most of these landfills do not comply with standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and many are in the process of being shut down.
Yet there is a potential solution to the island’s ongoing trash dilemma: so-called waste-to-energy (WtE), a strategy that has been implemented successfully in other countries and could be replicated across Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico has long had issues with its trash. In 1995, the island had 68 operational landfills. The next year, more than half of them were shut down by the EPA due to disregarded health and environmental standards, leaving only 32 landfills serving the territory. Of these, another 23 were supposed to close by 2005, although few actually have. Out of the 27 landfills that currently exist in Puerto Rico, 22 do not comply with EPA standards. If all non-compliant landfills were shut down, as is anticipated, that would leave only five landfills available to accommodate the waste produced by the island’s 3.6 million inhabitants. Introducing WtE can greatly decrease the stress on the remaining landfills.
WtE plants in Puerto Rico would collect trash, recover recyclable materials, and create energy through the incineration of non-recyclable waste. Bottom ash—the residue left over from the incineration process—could then be repurposed as aggregate for construction projects or as metals for the auto industry, further decreasing waste. A series of filters and scrubbers attached to the incinerator would clean the outgoing emissions and maintain air quality and health standards in the surrounding communities.
Enormous Potential Benefits of Waste-to-Energy
The potential benefits of WtE systems in Puerto Rico span multiple sectors. First, there is the obvious decrease in trash volumes that otherwise would have been thrown in a (likely under-regulated) landfill. Second, when best practices are used, WtE is less burdensome to the environment than burning natural gas or even leaving the trash in landfills. Research shows that for every ton of trash processed in a WtE plant, one ton of carbon dioxide emissions is eliminated. For a small island with a large population, such as Puerto Rico, WtE plants can promote land conservation while reducing landfill congestion.
This alternative energy source also can play a crucial role in reducing dependence on imported petroleum to power the island’s electricity grid. Although most of the world has abandoned petroleum as an electricity source, its use is still common in small-island states, including Puerto Rico. The expensive practice of burning petroleum for electricity is a side-effect of limited (or, in the case of Puerto Rico, non-existing) fossil fuel sources, as well as of the inability to convert the current petroleum-burning plants into those for natural gas. While solar, wind and other renewables also should be incorporated into the island’s energy mix, WtE would provide a valuable baseload supply of energy that would minimize fluctuations in other renewable sources.
In terms of health benefits, less trash would create fewer breeding grounds for mosquitoes that could be vectors of the Zika virus and other illnesses. The proximity of landfills to many communities in Puerto Rico further increases the threat of disease transmission. Neighborhoods such as Caño Martín Peña and many others that are located near under-regulated landfills have higher rates of chronic disease and acute illness, due in large part to the deteriorated environmental conditions. Water contamination from clogged waterways and poor air quality—a product of the pollution and noxious odors from stagnant sewage water—are of particular concern.
The decreased fuel imports and reduced health risks would advantage the government economically, enabling it to reallocate funds to other sectors of critical need or even to reduce the $70 million debt. More than just saving money, selling the bottom ash from WtE incineration to the automobile industry and/or to construction projects can increase revenue from the plant as well as further decrease waste. This strategy has already proved successful with Puerto Rico’s coal-fired power plant.
Barriers to Overcome
The greatest challenge to developing WtE in Puerto Rico is financing. Although in many ways still a developing country, Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and therefore is not eligible for monetary support from international development banks, the Green Climate Fund, and other tools offered to developing countries for climate mitigation and adaptation. Unlike many European countries, which have joint declarations with their overseas countries and territories for assistance in climate mitigation and adaptation, the United States has not given its territories the same attention. This lack of international funding, coupled with Puerto Rico’s unfavorable sovereign credit rating, has created barriers to the development of renewable energy, including WtE, on the island.
That said, the 2008 Economic Incentive for the Development of Puerto Rico Act does provide several tax exemptions, as well as research and development funding, for renewable energy technologies, including WtE. In 2010, Puerto Rico also issued the Green Energy Incentives Act, which includes a Green Energy Fund to supply a host of tax incentives and monetary benefits. However, the island does not have the cornerstone policies, such as auctions or feed-in tariffs, necessary to de-risk renewable energy investment. The tax incentives already established, partnered with a cornerstone policy and a dedication to the current renewable energy targets, would begin the necessary de-risking process. U.S. private and public sector support can catalyze Puerto Rico’s transition. For example, a WtE plant being constructed in Arecibo is being financed by EnergyAnswers with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service.
Social acceptance of WtE technology also must be tackled. The EPA should become more involved in the regulation of WtE systems. Although the agency has a questionable record of holding companies accountable on the island, it can ensure that all of the environmental and health regulations are met properly by imposing consistent sanctions when they are not. The EPA, working alongside project developers to communicate both the benefits of the WtE system as well as how any negative impacts will be remedied, can minimize social rejection of WtE and accelerate the development of these projects. The increased presence and dedication of the EPA will help broaden the use of best practices, creating a more efficient system and setting a precedent for future environmental issues.
Puerto Rico has been grappling with its waste management issue for decades, but circumstances are now reaching a tipping point. The Solid-Waste Management Authority predicts that continuing with “business as usual” would leave Puerto Rico without space to dispose of its trash by 2018. WtE technology can not only ameliorate the landfill issues facing the country by decreasing trash volumes, but also expand the island’s renewable energy mix, increase the quality of life of the population, and reduce government spending—all critical issues today. While incineration cannot be the silver bullet—there also must be an increase in recycling practices and overall resource efficiency—it is the solid foundation that Puerto Rico needs to solve its trash dilemma. More importantly, WtE may be the only tangible solution that the island currently has.
Paola Capo was a Climate and Energy intern at the Worldwatch Institute. She is studying Science, Technology, and International Affairs with a focus on energy and environment at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Banner photo: Adam Levine (CC)