Groups propose ‘circular economy’ alternative to deal with trash problem

By The Star Staff

Several civic groups are proposing alternatives to the ever-growing trash problem in Puerto Rico caused by the lack of both adequate landfills and strong recycling programs.

The groups said Puerto Rico can by 2028 reduce or divert 50% of the waste that today reaches landfills with a comprehensive and actionable strategy based on a model of circular economic development. The plan, which includes creating the Circular Generation Trust, would make it possible to reduce the use of landfills and close those that do not comply with public safety and environmental protection laws and regulations. Implementing the plan would generate more than 6,600 jobs, the groups said at a Monday news conference.

“This strategic plan is a starting point to discuss how we will address the persistent solid waste problem,” said Ingrid M. Vila Biaggi, president and co-founder of CAMBIO, which is the coordinating entity of the multisectoral plan “Circular Generation: Toward a Circular Economy.”

“Puerto Rico can lead a transformation toward a circular economy that minimizes discarded resources and maximizes local initiatives toward reduction, reuse, and recycling,” she said.

The plan is the result of the analysis of a work team specialized in waste management, and community organizations and entities dedicated to the protection of the environment, including: Cambio, Zero Waste Puerto Rico, Center for Sustainable Community Solutions of Syracuse University, Climate Think: Institute for Climate Law and Policy, the Municipal Recycling Coordinators Coalition, the Anti-Incineration Organizations Coalition, Haser, Martín Peña Recicla, the Puerto Rico Recycling Partnership, Sierra Club and the environmental action corporation Thai. It was subsidized by the Segarra Boerman Foundation.

The plan recognizes that managing waste and mitigating the impact of climate change requires all sectors of society. How does a circular economy work? In the linear economy, raw natural resources are taken and transformed into products that eventually get disposed of. A circular economy model, by contrast, aims to close the gap between the production and the natural ecosystems’ cycles – upon which humans ultimately depend.

This means, on one hand, eliminating waste – composting biodegradable waste or, if it’s a transformed and non-biodegradable waste, reusing, remanufacturing and finally recycling it.

The groups propose the creation of the Circular Generation Trust as a change to the current governance model to expand participation and ensure progress in strategies. Its board of directors would have representation from the third sector, communities, the private sector and experts in waste management, with the participation of the central government and the municipalities, who have the ministerial and constitutional duty of the more effective conservation of the island’s natural resources, as well as greater development and use of them for the general benefit of the community.

The trust would coordinate strategies ensuring the transparency of processes, data and control in the use of funds.

Stephanie Anderson, coordinator of the Puerto Rico Recycling Partnership, emphasized that “Puerto Rico needs to implement robust, harmonious and clear policies that facilitate achieving a sustainable society.”

The public policy of the Biden-Harris administration, which the plan addresses, is heading in that direction.

“As part of its strategy, the federal government will allocate millions of dollars to create an environment-friendly economy and infrastructure. They favor implementing the circular generation plan on the island with federal support,” Anderson said.

The plan proposes to use federal funds allocated for the recovery of Hurricane Maria, which would provide for the management of solid waste and create jobs. It also proposes incentives and programs to create companies and projects for the sustainable management of waste materials.

Proponents advocate for greater transparency in the funds allocated to waste management.

“Those items destined to deposit material in landfills can redirect to activities that promote the economic development of multiple sectors, such as recycling and reuse of materials,” said Elizabeth Avilés, a representative of the Municipal Recycling Coordinators Coalition.

Puerto Rico generates around 8,290 tons of daily waste, equivalent to 5.19 pounds per person. This can produce nearly 290,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to estimates of waste deposited in 2019. Thirty-four percent of the total waste is organic material, but it is possible to prevent 60% of this from ending up in landfills by 2028, the groups said. The diverted organic material can be used to produce compost locally, which is an asset for food safety.

“We are literally wasting millions of dollars in reusable resources,” said Vanessa Uriarte of Martín Peña Recicla. “Taking advantage of them will reduce the environmental footprint and produce economic opportunities for more people.”

The plan details strategies to manage, reduce, reuse or recycle waste according to its features. The actions focus on organic resources, paper and cardboard, plastic and foam, glass, metals, and construction and demolition waste, which will increase with the beginning of post-hurricane reconstruction works. It also recommends actions for electronic waste and used appliances, tires and oils. The strategies are aimed at government agencies, non-profit organizations and the private sector. In addition, they provide data and guidelines for the formulation of public policy.

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