Wednesday, May 30, 2018
Flying across the beautiful blues of the Atlantic Ocean heading towards the Caribbean Sea, a Plastic Ocean Project team was embarking on its first trip to Puerto Rico to study the feasibility of a plastic to fuel solution for the island. The team, consisting of Ned Buddy and Rafael Toro, was at the beginning of a 96-hour fact finding tour of the “Enchanted Island”. POP’s research into a Plastics2Fuel solution for the islands of the Caribbean began 3 years prior. Initial research on Puerto Rico was made possible with the help of Daniela Romero, an undergraduate and founding member of UNCW POP.
Ned and Rafael had begun seriously discussing the use of a proven technology developed by a company called Renewlogy which takes plastics and converts them into a distillate and fuel oil combination, similar to a #2 diesel back in October 2017. Could we take this process and set up a prototype in Puerto Rico?
In December 2017, Rafael travelled to the island on family matters. It was his first return to his native island in over 8 years. He saw firsthand the devastation wrought by the hurricanes, not just on the land, but on the people. Traffic lights were nonfunctional and approached with caution. Abandoned and neglected gas stations and homes made once bustling areas look like ghost towns. Bent and broken billboards, debris, trash, hanging tree branches, utility poles and lines littered the side of the roads. But the noticeable effect of the hurricanes was on the faces of the Puerto Ricans. The festive and jolly time of Christmas he remembered from his past was missing this year.
One glow of optimism came when Rafael visited longtime friend, Pedro Negrón, in his home near San German. He related the harrowing 40 hours he endured during hurricane Maria and the immediate recovery efforts afterwards. Discussing the Plastics2Fuel initiative with him, they explored ideas of how to place such a system in Puerto Rico. He saw this as a worthwhile endeavor and even offered his land to locate it on. Being a long-standing member of the community, made him a unique barometer of POP’s vision.
On the approach into San Juan, the blue tarps still passing for roofs on the houses below were a stark reminder of the devastation wrought by hurricanes Irma & Maria 7 months prior. Yet driving the northern route across the island, we found ourselves surprised by the cleanliness of the surrounding landscape. Although we saw numerous billboards toppled over into parking lots and buildings, as well as hundreds of trees lying a strewn in the hills, the highway roadside was clean and lush. The downed power lines, poles, and scattered debris were gratefully missing since Rafael’s last visit to Puerto Rico. The expressway to Arecibo showed signs of cleanliness, well-manicured landscapes and highway maintenance.
Traffic and street lights were functional and made for safe travels. In the distance homes and neighborhoods were lit up. Going through town after town, we noticed such a high volume of traffic coming in and out of the malls, eateries, pharmacies and grocery stores. Business was flowing as usual.
We arrived in San German close to 10pm, settling into one of the original cities of the island, at the gracious bed & breakfast operated by Tony Linares just across the street from the Porta Coeli (Gateway to Heaven) Convent church, built in 1609. After a brief tour and background of the historic house which was to be our base for the next 4 days, we settled in for the night with coquis lullabying us to sleep.
We awoke Sunday morning, Earth Day, to a beautiful day. We headed off to visit several popular beaches in the southwest. Heading out through Cabo Rojo we reached Playa Buyé, a small cove with a reef and rocky shoreline. We continued on to Combate, passing through Boquerón. We reached the old fishing village in the southwest corner of the island near to the lighthouse. There we saw 55-gallon plastic barrels clearly marked for recyclable materials, but empty for the most part. We picked up trash along the ¼ mile beach. We received some weird looks but we also found some receptive offers of help. We did get about 30 minutes of swimming in that beautiful sea. We filled up a dozen or so bags of trash, containing lots of straws, plastic cups, packets of Gasolina – a unique potent rum drink unfortunately sold in Capri-Sun like packaging.
Sunday evening, we had a traditional Puerto Rican dinner back at the house with Pedro Negrón and his wife Iris. In addition, the Head of Public Works for San German, the engineer, Damian Morales and the recycling coordinator, Ulises Quinones and their wives joined us. Breaking bread and getting to know them, gave us a greater appreciation for their hardships during the hurricane. How resilient and resourceful the human being can be. All agreed that something had to be done with plastic waste.
Monday morning, we woke up to sound of roosters and the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Ulises picked us up at 9 to begin our tour of the municipality and the recycling center. He brought us through the network of recycling centers set up at the 15 schools in the municipality which complement the household collections. One of the schools was named Bartolome De Las Casas. He was a Spanish monk who was sent to the island in the 16th century to study its population, fauna and wildlife. We felt like him on our research study. We continued on through the waste stream to the public works facility.
Reaching the municipality recycling center which is located in a small valley we entered a well-kept and orderly facility. Entering into the building we passed a flatbed trailer loaded with empty black drums which had been flown in by FEMA as emergency fuel. Ulises offered these to us to store our fuel. We met with Damian Morales and his staff and presented him our initiative. We collected some data and more information on their services and programs. Later we toured the outdoor facility where we were able to view the sorting and baling of the various recyclable products.
We left to visit the next stage of the waste stream, WR Recycling, which manages the recyclables for 11 municipalities in the region. We proceeded to Bajura, a low-lying area where their Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) is. We were met by Melissa Bonilla Ramos, one of the administrators of the company, who graciously provided many facts, insights and a tour of the facility. We spent a couple of hours there gaining an understanding of how it was operated. Since the hurricane, the Army Corps of Engineers has charged WR Recycling with processing the mounds of white goods (refrigerators, washers, dryers, stoves, vending machines, etc.) collected throughout the region. As a result the amount of recyclables has piled up creating rows and rows of 10 foot high stacks of baled plastic containers, aluminum cans, plastic bags all around the grounds. This was also the cause of the backlog we witnessed at the sorting facility in San German.
Tuesday morning, Ulises took us to a regional landfill in Lajas. This landfill, one of the 28 across the island, has been in operation for over 40 years now and is one of the 12 which are not under closure orders from the EPA. It is operated by the municipality of Lajas. We were granted access to drive anywhere we like and look around as long as we please. We explored the 34-acre site which takes in near 300 tons of waste a week. It too had huge mountains of white goods awaiting disposal. As we drove up the 100 foot “cliffs” of garbage we taken aback by the cake layered effect of plastic bags which had accumulated over the years.
Afterwards, we headed south towards the Caribbean Sea, we reached the town of Guayanilla. We had been invited there to tour their facility and present our initiative to Ruben Carrero, the Head of Recycling for the municipality. He has built a collection network of 5,000 homes as well as using the 19 schools in Guayanilla. They have their own MRF which processes over 250,000 lbs. of recyclables a month. Ruben has built a very resourceful network and is one of the few facilities actually able to find alternatives to the landfill for glass.
After visiting both facilities, we headed northwest past San German to Mayagüez where we visited Campus Verde. This is a collegiate initiative of the Mayagüez Campus of the University of Puerto Rico, which encourages and educates how to responsibly manage the planet's resources inside and outside the campus. Campus Verde coordinates activities and workshops to raise awareness about the importance of living in harmony with the Planet. They provide innovations ranging from planting trees, cleaning beaches, movie presentations, conferences, and workshops to the community and now also offer an online course on Environmental Sustainability. In 2015, they opened an Eco House on campus. The opening ceremony was attended by Jane Goodall. Yamitza Gaztambide, Administrative Assistant, was graciously spent over an hour with us going over some of their presentations, explaining their background and programs and leading us on a tour of the Eco House. The similarities between Campus Verde and UNCW POP were striking.
We returned to San German after a fulfilling and rewarding day to get some much-needed rest and prepare for our final day which would be in San Juan. Reflecting on our successes of the past 3 days, we were quite pleased that we had been able to view the whole of the waste stream from the schools to the sorting facilities, the recycling facility and the landfill. Around 4am, we were reminded of one additional piece, the household garbage collection!
Awaking just past dawn, we ate another delicious breakfast and packed ourselves up. After saying our goodbyes, we travelled off along the southern highway through Ponce and then north through the mountainous interior of the island and on to San Juan. Along the way, we came across a large windfarm, saw one of the main diesel to electricity plants which creates the majority of the island’s electricity and wondrous views of the Caribbean. Travelling through the mountains, with thousands of trees strewn across the hills like toothpicks, you could understand the amazing logistics involved with bringing power to the final 10,000 or so households still dark 7 months on.
In San Juan, we met with Robert Castaneda and John Gray of Greenlink RE, a renewable energy company working on developing new technologies to make a positive impact upon the waste streams. They are also looking at using Renewlogy’s technology on a more commercial level. We traded our experiences in Puerto Rico and listened with interest to their other projects elsewhere in Latin America. After our cups of delicious Puerto Rican coffee, we moved on to lunch with Jessica Seiglie and David Savilla, the Executive Director and fellow Director of Basura Cero (Zero Waste). Over some delicious local seafood, we discussed how they are making an island wide impact on reducing the amount of waste generated in Puerto Rico.
We had such an inspiring time in Puerto Rico! We went down there with the question of whether it could be possible to use a P2F technology in Puerto Rico. We were met with enthusiasm, cooperation, open doors and genuine encouragement to go forward with POP’s goal of a P2F solution for a Caribbean island. The answer to our hypothesis was a resounding YES!
We would be amiss if we did not thank POP for the faith in our convictions, Tony Linares for his hospitality, Jessica Seiglie for her perseverance in proof reading and fine tuning the Spanish version of our 36 slide presentation, Damian Morales for his insightful questions, Frontier Airlines for providing us the low cost fares which made this venture possible, to the family of Rehole Polyte and the rest of the Haiti team, Hannah Phillips, Annie Clark, Blada Johnson, Getro Deliscas, your tribulations were in our hearts during our journey, and to you, for reading our tale of adventure, hope and dreams of providing a sustainable solution to the “Planetary Pickle” that plastic waste has enveloped us in. We hope we have piqued your interest, inspired your creativity and perhaps we can count on you to help us to continue our research. For more information on Plastic Ocean Project’s Plastics 2 Fuel initiative, please visit http://www.PlasticOceanProject.org/plastic-2-fuel.html