Act 70 of 1992, established government public policy on recycling. At the time, it was proposed as a goal that 35% of our solid waste be recycled by 2006. Unfortunately, to this day, not even a third of that goal has been met. We believed that by simply passing a law the problem would not be solved.
The urgent issue of solid waste has been under discussion in Puerto Rico for more than 27 years. This prolonged period of time without action has led us to the point where 18 of our 29 landfills are in violation of regulations. Even several of them have closing orders issued by the EPA. Landfills that are still in operation are estimated to have about four years of service life. To further aggravate the situation, in Puerto Rico, the average individual produces 5.50 pounds of solid waste a day, compared to the global average for 2016, which was 2.64 pounds a day in urban areas, placing us number 23 in the world in production of Waste. The 2017 hurricanes created an increased need for construction, coupled with the need to dispose of over than 6.20 million cubic yards of debris. It is estimated that the reconstruction process will produce a higher amount of debris to dispose of than caused by hurricanes. Add to this our reliance on importing over 80% of our supplies and export approximately 90% of recyclable material.
There are a variety of initiatives we can explore to tackle the situation with solid wastes. For example, the demolition and recycling of private property impacted by the 2017 hurricanes and the crushing of tires for use with asphalt pavements. The first of these initiatives is being funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and would allow concrete demolition, which does not contain materials such as asbestos or lead, to be crushed and reused as fill material. According to recent studies, the second initiative would contribute to the durability of the pavements, while allowing us to address the problem of having approximately to dispose of approximately four million tires per year. In addition, we could explore the options we have to generate energy with methane that occurs in the breakdown of solid waste, without necessarily requiring incineration.
We can also use the state of California as reference, where glass is pulverized to replace sand lost by coastal erosion. After all, the raw material for making glass comes precisely from sand. In addition to using this material in places where turtles do not nest, we could use this sand as a building material, for concrete mixtures and for blocks or plaster.
It’s time to act now. A market must be established in order to enable recycling as a real alternative beyond Law 70. The most important option is to work on education. We need to focus on the importance of reducing the amount of waste we produce, and we need to work with the life cycle of the materials and understand how to handle them in all stages. We must sponsor and incentivize manufacturers and producers who optimize their packaging to minimize waste, limit the use of disposable materials and make them biodegradable. Let’s work to give our children a better world. At the end of the day, that’s what sustainability is all about.
Emilio Colón Zavala, Chairman of the Board PRBA El Nuevo Día, September 12, 2019