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One Man’s Basura Is Another Man’s Energía: How Waste-to-Energy Can Drive Puerto Rico Toward Sustainable Development

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.

disposal-of-waste-in-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.

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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.

energy-generation-mixThis 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.

Why Now?

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)

4 thoughts on “One Man’s Basura Is Another Man’s Energía: How Waste-to-Energy Can Drive Puerto Rico Toward Sustainable Development”

  1. This is a comprehensive and well balanced article outlining the advantages of WTE and the financial constraints limiting the development of this mode of energy production. I must say that the case of Puerto Rico is not unique. Many other Caribbean countries face the same dilemma. Time is running out. The conversion of Solid Municipal Waste to energy is very popular in most developed countries.The technology has proven to be efficient,reliable and environmentally friendly, Still this new mode of energy production is rarely adopted in the Caribbean. It all boils down to financing including the state of the electrical infrastructure. Perhaps a Call for Expression of Interest for a public /private partnership needs to be considered.

  2. Hola, os escribo desde Australia. Este es un articulo muy interesante de lo que es posible hacer con los residuos. He trabajado en España por mas de 20 anos en el Gobierno, y ahora es el momento de que los residuos dejen de ser un problema, para convertirse en una solución. Actualmente vivo en Australia, y pertenezco a un equipo de técnicos que estamos comercializando a nivel global la tecnologia mas eficiente en Gasificacion. Seria interesante disponer de mas informacion donde podamos dirigirnos a ofrecer soluciones a coste Cero para el gobierno, para Islas y territorios del continente Americano.

    Gracias. Silviawrc@gmail.com

  3. No! Burning discarded resources puts the landfill into the air, generates submicron particulates and toxins such as dioxins and dibenzofurans, and wastes the materials. Wasting creates a supply vacuum for manufacturers, who will need to get resources for new products by extracting fresh materials from dwindling supplies or over-harvested sources in the natural world. Communities need to promise a 30-year supply of materials to waste, with a 30-year promise to pay the incinerator operator. Some communities have gone bankrupt under this pressure. Burning recovers only the resources’ lowest value, energy. But much more will be used in new extraction. From a planetary perspective, the energy imbalance and materials wasting cannot be justified. From a community perspective, the financial and health dangers cannot be justified. Zero Waste generates many more jobs and local wealth. Zero Waste means no burning, no burying. Only total recovery will suffice. No more fooling around. If it can’t be recycled or composted, it shouldn’t be made. – Aunty Entropy

  4. Hi,

    I’m writing from Australia.

    This is a very interesting article of what it is possible to do with waste. I have worked in waste for Spanish Government for over 20 years, and now it is the time to change waste from being a problem, to become a solution. At the moment I live in Australia, and I belong to a team of technicians that are commercialising at the global level the most efficient technology in Gasification not incineration as what is used in the above video.

    It would be interesting to have more contacts in waste for Government or Commercial Companies where we can direct our solutions to.
    This would be a processing plant that potential Governments or Commercial Companies purchase or a own operate plant that will be zero cost to setup for Governments or Commercial Companies (which includes Islands and Territories)

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