The COVID-19 emergency also brought limitations on the collection, management, and recycling of solid waste in Puerto Rico that pose a potential health risk amid efforts to fight the spread of this dangerous virus.
In recent days, several municipal governments have confirmed that, due to budget cuts or measures to prevent exposing the health of recycling program personnel, they have determined to suspend or temporarily limit this activity. Also, the regular collection of domestic waste and its disposal in landfills has been affected in some towns.
Given this scenario, the central government and municipal administrations must ensure they are properly addressing solid waste management, without neglecting the challenges of the pandemic. It is important to avoid worsening deficiencies in waste management on the island.
Puerto Rico did not comply with Law 70-1992, which set the goal of recycling 35 percent of the waste that can be reused. Authorities estimate that only 5 percent of the waste is currently recycled. Advancing towards that goal is a complex task because there is no industry on the island that can process glass, plastic, metals, and other materials with potential for reuse into new products. Existing programs are limited to the collection of certain materials for eventual export, with few opportunities in a highly regulated global market.
The recent halt to the already limited recycling efforts in several municipalities delays compliance with Law 70. Meanwhile, the volume of materials moved to landfills is increasing.
The island has 28 landfills operating with a life span that will be faster reduced by the increase in materials with recycling potential. These days there is also more waste generation due to the increase in domestic activity associated with social distancing measures ordered to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Of this total of 28 facilities, 13 have short-term closure orders issued by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The projection is that 67 percent of these landfills would be closed by 2022.
Among the health challenges associated with COVID-19, new elements of risk arise in terms of environmental health due to the inadequate disposal of latex masks and gloves. Improper handling of these items, which could represent a risk of contagion, implies a violation of the legal clauses on the handling of biomedical waste. It is urgent to guide families, as well as the private and community sectors to avoid these practices.
Today it is important that citizens, businesses, and government components recognize that improper waste management exposes them to environmental damage that can seriously affect flora, fauna, water bodies, air quality, as well as the health of adults and children.
Therefore, it is necessary to avoid affecting the collection and disposal of waste and to seek the reactivation of recycling programs. In this scenario, citizens have the responsibility to limit the generation of waste and to reuse materials, in order not to further aggravate a problem that threatens our quality of life.
A sensible waste management plan and its strict implementation in this emergency must be a priority for Puerto Rico. However, the initiative must continue in the long term as a key tool to advance our evolution as a society.