As global policies shift toward recycling and implementing environmentally oriented measures to deter the progress of climate change, Puerto Rico is lagging behind some developed countries in terms of effective legislation and proper education on adequate waste disposal and responsible consumerism, experts said.
Many of the items destined for recycling actually wind up in the island’s landfills and waters, typically due to cross-contamination or because they don’t meet industry standards. In fact, only about 10 percent of the waste generated in Puerto Rico is recycled, according to government figures.
María A. Coronado, geologist and general interim manager at the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), explained in an interview with THE WEEKLY JOURNAL that the agency doesn’t have a precise number on how many of these items are disposed incorrectly because the specific requirements for recycling have changed locally and internationally.
“The [DNER’s] Recycling Division… is in the process of revising the data to determine the percentage of discarded material and verifying the current situation, especially the change that happened prior to hurricanes Irma and Maria [in 2017],” Coronado stated.
Coronado pointed to the Puerto Rico Solid Waste Reduction and Recycling Act of 1992, whose provisions state that all entities and municipalities must have a recycling plan.
“The division’s personnel performs the due inspections in the municipalities with regard to this issue of their recycling plans and the municipal community deposit center, known as drop-offs. Based on these visits or inspections, and taking into account the data presented in the quarterly reports, the municipal compliance is determined,” she said.
Coronado asserted that all municipalities have a plan, but some of them don’t comply with the requirement of standing before the DNER’s quarterly recycling reports.
Regarding market demands, the official informed that the recyclable materials with the greatest demand are Plastics 1 and 2. Plastic 1, polyethylene terephthalate, comprises the vast majority of disposable containers and bottles, while Plastic 2, a high-density polyethylene, is the main component of many other common items and containers.
Both of these are picked up by most recycling programs, but the industry now requires the population to wash these items thoroughly and to remove their labels and caps before disposing of them for recycling. This—along with not separating plastics, glass, paper and cardboard from one another—leads to cross-contamination, also known as aspirational recycling, in which these materials are rejected and sent to landfills.
The international scientific community is pleading for immediate action from companies and consumers to transition from plastic products to more “eco-friendly” items. However, Gian O'Ferrall, managing partner at G & P Global Corp., affirmed that the solution is not simple due to the differences between biodegradable and compostable materials.
“When we talk about biodegradable products, these are products that are manufactured under certain standards and additives are included in the product. What it does is that when the product comes into contact with bacteria or a molecule, the very product is consumed and that molecule eats away the molecules that comprise the product,” explained O'Ferrall, whose company is dedicated to importing and exporting disposable and biodegradable items.
Meanwhile, he explained that compostable items undergo a similar manufacturing process, but they require an environment where these are recycled with other products that fall under the same concept. Plastic, cardboard, and other materials can be biodegradable, whereas compostable items are generally a type of cardboard and require a more careful disposal method.
Moreover, O'Ferrall observed that the process of manufacturing compostable products would entail a greater consumption of petroleum, a highly toxic fossil fuel, as well as more deforestation, which is detrimental to the planet’s ecosystems.
Puerto Rico in Need of Cultural Changes to Assess Issue
Both Coronado and O'Ferrall concurred that a key step to reducing this pollution is to enact a cohesive plan in the public education system and to adopt cultural and behavioral changes focused on short- and long-term recycling.
During the Alejandro García Padilla administration (2012-2016), the government approved a law to ban plastic bags in supermarkets. Most recently, there have been discussions worldwide about banning plastic straws and other particulars.
According to O'Ferrall, these methods are ineffective because, in the case of the plastic bag ban, stores simply opted to sell bags made of a different plastic that—although biodegradable—ultimately produces the same waste problem but at a higher cost to consumers.
When asked to offer his view on likeminded measures, OFerrall denounced that under these concepts “we are generating the same garbage, but now we will have more expensive trash than the kind we have now.”
Thus, he affirmed that there is an urgent need to educate the population on different types of products and recycling processes, as well as to foster an eco-conscious mindset to avoid littering.
“The first thing we need to do in Puerto Rico is to create a good recycling program where people are educated, just like they used to do in previous years,” he said.
For her part, Coronado noted that her department’s Recycling Division conducts educational duties in municipal communities and in collaboration with private and public entities, but this needs to be accompanied by a long-term educational campaign that will target children and youth directly from within the classrooms.
“A [recycling] course should be included in the school curriculum so that we can change the culture and idiosyncrasies of the young generations that are beginning their learning cycle. This is the way that many countries have managed to change the mentality toward recycling, such as Costa Rica and European countries. There has to be a multi-sectoral campaign combining the educational curriculum and advertising in the media to increase and develop environmental awareness,” she stated.
Federal Funds to Tackle Solid Waste Dilemma
According to Coronado, the DNER recently received approval for the first phase of a supplementary economic disaster grant awarded by the U.S. Congress and administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The first and second phases of this program include, as one of its main components, education toward recycling, to be granted to both private citizens and municipal governments. The program will be focused on providing advice and education on how to handle solid waste in Puerto Rico in an integrated way.
“Part of the documentation of phase 1 includes the development of the Puerto Rico Solid Waste Characterization Study, which is practically an analysis made of samples of the garbage that is deposited in landfills or in other disposal systems. The other document is the Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan… that will establish and fix Puerto Rico’s public policy on solid waste management,” the official said.
Through the federal measure, $10 million were assigned to the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and $40 million to Puerto Rico. “The USVI has already begun its study of waste characterization in sanitary landfill systems and they are already well advanced in that regard,” she said.
Editor's note: This story was published on the November 20 print edition of The Weekly Journal.