Plastic2Fuel Innitiative in Puerto Rico gets a GRANDE welcome
Flying across the beautiful blues of the Atlantic Ocean heading towards the Caribbean Sea, Antilles Plastic Project 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”.
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?
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.
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 do cleanups at 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 filled up a dozen or so bags of trash, containing many straws, plastic cups, packets of Gasolina – a unique potent rum drink unfortunately sold in Capri-Sun like packaging, bottles, cans, a kite, a flipper and an umbrella. We have long road to give plastic value here.
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.
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. Campus Verde truly had the vision and qualities which we were seeking.
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 our Plastics to Fuel solution for a Caribbean island. The answer to our hypothesis was a resounding YES!