In 2017, as Puerto Rico was recovering from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, one sliver of news was unremarked on in most stories about the island: the cancellation of plans to build a waste-to-energy plant in the northern municipality of Arecibo.
The economy was in shambles, families were displaced, homes were in disrepair, businesses were closed and hundreds of thousands of the island's three million residents still lacked power. With this damage exacerbating the territory's mounting debt crisis, then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló withdrew his support for a plan long protested by communities and activists. This project from a subsidiary of New York-based Energy Answers International was the latest iteration of many waste-to-energy (WTE) proposals going back decades, according to news reports and multiple sources on the ground.
Although the canceled plan was the most recent prospective WTE facility in Puerto Rico, many suspect it will not be the last.
WTE can be an appealing proposal for many communities, and especially so for Puerto Rico, an island plagued by noncompliant landfills the U.S. EPA projects could leave the territory at capacity in a matter of years. Such stark predictions mean more efforts are being directed toward recycling and composting initiatives, but some experts worry even an island-wide recycling program would not solve the problem fast enough. About 12-14% of waste in Puerto Rico is recycled, according to the Puerto Rico Recycling Partnership, an initiative created by the EPA and the government of Puerto Rico.
Most of the island's 29 landfills are overcapacity and noncompliant under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act regulations. Unlined and uncovered, many of them overflow with waste that contaminates the water supply, attracts pests and sends odors into nearby homes. The EPA has legal agreements to close 12 of these sites and is in the process of sending the territory $40 million in grants to address hazardous and solid waste management as a result.
As Puerto Rico's impending waste crisis fast approaches, many attuned to the island's needs are thinking about strategies to move forward. While environmentalists and community leaders insist on a "zero waste" program free of any combustion processes, other industry experts see WTE as a crucial part of any realistic waste management strategy. Some also see gasification as a possible third option that avoids the environmental costs of traditional mass burn combustion, while others are skeptical there is any difference at all.
Decades of debate
WTE has been present in the territory's materials management discussions since the 1980s, according to Ingrid Vila Biaggi, a civil and environmental engineer, who has held various senior positions in Puerto Rican government from the early 2000s until 2015. Vila Biaggi, who has since founded the non-profit organization CAMBIO to promote sustainable and responsible policy and actions in Puerto Rico, said there have been several attempts to establish facilities like the Arecibo project.
She called the most recent iteration of the Arecibo proposition "a second round to a failed proposal" that was discarded by then-Gov. Sila María Calderón in 2001. That proposal was revived in 2010 when then-Gov. Luis Fortuño passed a fast-track project evaluation process and declared an "energy emergency" on the island.
"Within that context, the waste-to-energy facility was able to get a lot of the permits and approval from government in an expedited manner," Vila Biaggi told Waste Dive.
The plant would have taken approximately 2,300 tons per day, according to a 2018 release, and cost an estimated $860 million. Vila Biaggi said the proposed plan would not have been economically feasible for local governments, because it "would make them bankrupt and would have dire consequences on the finances of the municipalities."
Myrna Conty, president of an environmental group called Friends of the River Guaynabo and coordinator for the Coalition of Anti-Incineration Organizations, also expressed concerns the plant would produce more than 400 tons of ash per day. She noted the island is already dealing with large amounts of coal ash from a plant in the province of Guayama.
Vila Biaggi and Conty allege the government attempted to rush the project's approval process without any public hearings or participation. Multiple documents provided by Conty show letters from the Coalition of Anti-Incineration Organizations to various government officials between 2012 and 2018 complaining about efforts to limit speaking time at public hearings, speed up approval processes and withhold crucial information.
After the government's 2014 debt crisis, the project was presented as an opportunity to create over 1,000 jobs in the economically depressed Arecibo area. CAMBIO, along with other environmental and community organizations, asserted this proposal overestimated the amount of jobs the facility would create. They said Puerto Rico would be unable to supply the waste necessary to run the facility and that the project would have detrimental effects on public health, the environment and social conditions.
The groups presented these arguments to the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service, which considered providing financing for the project. The government did not withdraw its endorsement for the Arecibo project, even after the organizations presented these arguments, according to Vila Biaggi.
When Gov. Rosselló took office in 2017, a congressionally-mandated fiscal board had been appointed to take over the financial decisions of the island. His administration presented the Arecibo incinerator to the board as a "priority project."
The facility never came to fruition because of an unforeseeable factor — the devastating hurricanes that ravaged the island later that year. In January 2018, Energy Answers presented the project to the Financial Oversight and Management Board for consideration as a "critical project" under the "PROMESA" Act that established it. But the government later rescinded its endorsement for a project they no longer saw as economically feasible or desirable due to more pressing recovery issues.
Vila Biaggi currently describes the proposal as "dormant," but not "necessarily dead," with no formalized closure of the project despite longtime lobbying from nonprofits and communities. Both CAMBIO and the Arecibo communities remain "vigilant" over any changes, she said. Energy Answers, which previously saw a project in Baltimore fall apart, could not be reached for comment. The company's website is no longer active and the manager of its Arecibo project now works at a different company.
Searching for a silver bullet
While many experts say the island's waste challenges make WTE an attractive proposition, others remain skeptical. Mark Lichtenstein, chief of staff and chief sustainability officer for the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said since he started working in the territory in 2009, the proposal keeps returning like a game of "whack-a-mole."
"It's kind of seen as a silver bullet that can instantly take care of all your problems with overflowing landfills and there's a place to take the waste and — oh, by the way, we can make energy in the process," said Lichtenstein, who was formerly CEO and president of the National Recycling Coalition and also a co-founder of the Puerto Rico Recycling Partnership.
The presence of WTE facilities has grown tremendously in the past few decades, particularly in Japan, China and the European Union. But many, like Lichtenstein, cite a myriad of negative consequences. They often point to health impacts from air emissions and ash disposal, the destruction of resources that could be recycled to create new industries, the inefficiency of energy production, the relatively small number of jobs created compared to recycling or organics initiatives, and the potential to discourage waste reduction.
WTE supporters note many of these criticisms are also the same as those levied at landfills, and describe the facilities as just one part of an integrated system.
Many WTE proponents will say their facilities capture all regulated or "criteria" pollutants, but this doesn't take into account non-regulated pollutants, according to Gary Liss, vice president of Zero Waste USA.
"The criteria pollutants that are regulated are the ones that don't have good lobbyists. Non-criteria pollutants are the ones with good lobbyists," he said. "So they're not regulated. But that doesn't mean there's no impact. In fact, many of them have some of the worst impacts."
Lichtenstein and Liss, as well as activists on the ground in Puerto Rico and other communities, advocate for a "zero waste" strategy that integrates reduction, reuse, recycling and composting to create new jobs.
While WTE does have emissions of greenhouse gases, dioxins and furans, they are dwarfed by the emissions that come from landfills, according to Dr. Nickolas Themelis, founder and past director of Columbia University's Earth Engineering Center.
Themelis, whose research specialties include sustainable waste management and WTE, points out that only about 35% of waste in the United States is recycled or composted, according to the most recent figures from the EPA. Meanwhile, 52% is landfilled and only 13% goes to "combustion with energy recovery."
"Zero waste is a pipedream," he said. "Zero landfilling should be the objective." Themelis added this has been achieved in several countries through a combination of recycling and WTE. He said that WTE is the only alternative to landfilling for "post-recycling" waste, and believes it is unrealistic people will stop consuming plastic.
Advocates like Liss point to hundreds of "zero waste" cities all over the world that have adopted the goal, as well as examples like San Francisco, which reports diverting 80% of its waste from landfills and incineration. However, even a standout example like San Francisco failed to meet its goal of "zero waste" by 2020, and many have questioned the methodology behind that 80% figure.
Lichtenstein said the waste industry itself is at fault for the dearth of effective recycling systems, pointing to the 2017 disposal of green waste in Puerto Rico that had been shredded for composting as an example.
"It was the most insane thing that I've ever seen. But it's because the industry was so strong and they convinced [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the Corps of Engineers that composting is too complex, or we're not going to be able to make it happen. And the money that they generated in these trucking contracts was amazing," he said. "So when they say things like 'I'm a realist' what they're really saying, but they're not telling us, is the whole picture of how they themselves have stood in the way of the progressive kind of things that can happen."
Randy Jensen, President and CEO of Puerto Rican waste management company EC Waste calls those allegations "hogwash." EC Waste participated in several municipal grinding and processing contracts to handle shredded organic waste following Hurricane Maria. Jensen said the waste industry utilized much of that material by mixing it with dirt to use in daily landfill cover, erosion control, slope maintenance and road stabilizer to reduce consumption of natural resources.
"I'd argue that's as viable a recycling process as the composting process," he said, adding that such criticisms come from those who are upset that they "didn't make enough money on the composting."
Some of the WTE proposals floated around in the territory have also included a less established process called gasification that some groups are more optimistic about.
Mick Barry, president of Mid America Recycling and chair of the National Recycling Coalition, said he is a proponent of gasification because he is hopeful it will avoid the ash and air emissions problems of traditional WTE.
Barry has studied gasification plans for Puerto Rico that were put on hold because of the economy’s collapse in 2014. He said the proposal would add five or six additional mixed waste MRFs, which would have sorted materials for composting recycling and gasification.
Liss has a simple response to those who claim that gasification avoids the consequences of waste-to-energy: "They’re lying." Lichtenstein feels similarly.
"Any thermal system or whatever you call it — pyrolysis, gasification, incineration, waste-to-energy, waste of energy, energy-from-waste — anything that's a thermal system above 212 degrees Fahrenheit, we consider the problem," said Lichtenstein. "There are incinerators, or incinerators in disguise."
Marco J. Castaldi, professor and director of the Earth Engineering Center at City College of New York, said while gasification is theoretically more efficient than traditional mass burn combustion, it is difficult practically to realize those efficiencies due to the complexity of the process. He added many have tried to use it to process mixed waste for years it has yet to be implemented on a large scale. And while gasification emissions may be different than those from mass burn combustion, Castaldi says they are not necessarily less harmful, as regulations are still developing in that area.
"I think that those groups and companies that are developing gasifiers for mixed garbage confuse the message," said Castaldi. "Because they say, 'Well we're not waste-to-energy, we're not combustion. And so therefore we're better.' And I think the public and decision makers and municipalities — they really don't understand the subtleties."
Many environmentalists are uncomfortable with the idea due to its association with traditional WTE facilities and because they prefer recycling as a waste management strategy, Barry said. But he sees gasification as a method that can complement recycling, not limit it. As an example, Barry points to a Mexican facility called Bio-Sistemas Sustentables, which previously aimed to divert 95% of its waste stream from landfills through recycling, composting and gasification.
"You get 95% recovery, we're incentivizing waste management and waste diversion and waste recovery" by using 100% of the waste stream, Barry said. "Last time I checked, that's what recycling is all about."
Vila Biaggi said she has heard gasification proposals discussed, but never formally presented in Puerto Rico.
"Our analysis at least from the plans that have been initially presented, with the limited information that has been disclosed, is that they're pretty much the same thing," she said. "There's not so much of a difference between one and the other in terms of the environmental impacts and issues that it will create."
Conty agreed, adding gasification still produces harmful nanoparticles that are difficult to measure.
Overall, academics and waste industry leaders including Themelis, Castaldi and Jensen say WTE technology has improved dramatically over the years, and contend that opponents don’t take into account improved emissions control mechanisms.
With the landfill capacity crisis looming, many environmentalists like Vila Biaggi and Conty in Puerto Rico and other islands are hoping for the government to invest in a closed-loop "upcycling" model in which waste generation is reduced and what remains can be used as feedstock for new recycling industries.
But experts on the ground say current Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced’s administration, like past ones, has not prioritized the issue. Recently, waste has taken even more of a backseat in the wake of a cluster of devastating earthquakes and the coronavirus pandemic.
The absence of a "sensible integrated waste management policy" makes such "silver bullet" options like WTE seem more attractive, said Vila Biaggi. She and Lichtenstein suspect plans for a WTE facility will be revived in the future. But for the time being, many in Puerto Rico appear steadfast in their opposition.