San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Commission Eyes Solutions to Trash Problem

Part one in a two-part series Scrambling to deal with more than a million tons of trash produced yearly in Costa Rica, the government’s brand-new Coordinating Commission for the Search for an Integral Solution of the Management of Solid Wastes will brainstorm together next week.

Following a legislative decree published Aug. 4 in the official daily La Gaceta, the multi-ministerial commission is charged with formulating a two-year trash management improvement action plan. An Aug. 9 Public Health Ministry press release said the commission would seek more landfills, better recycling and special treatments for medical and other unconventional wastes. Led by the Health Ministry, Costa Rica’s principal public authority on garbage disposal, the commission includes leaders from the Ministry of the Presidency, the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) and the Institute for Municipal Development (IFAM).

Also at the consultation table is the German-Costa Rican Program of Competitiveness and Environment (CYMA). The program is six months into a three-year plan to help public and private sectors with municipal and industrial solid-waste initiatives; so far, CYMA helped cement manufacturer Holcim to use industrial waste, such as dirty automobile oil, in the production of cement. CYMA advisor Federico Corrales said the program is also promoting a proposed “General Waste Law.”

The bill, currently under legislative consultation, would develop a legal system to transfer responsibility of garbage processing from the state to “generators, producers and consumers,” and seeks to give value to items now bound for trash heaps.

Costa Rica’s garbage problem is no secret, said Edgar García, the Health Minister’s advisor on the subject of solid waste. García said private companies presented him with about 10 waste-processing proposals during his three-month tenure as garbage researcher.

While “sanitary landfills” are the most commonly proposed final solution, the Ministry is also interested in waste incineration plants.

Any garbage processing plant would have to obtain a permit from the Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA), said Eugenio Androbeto, director of the Health Ministry’s controls and permits. After clearing SETENA, a garbage plant or landfill would need a Health Ministry location permit, a blueprint permit and a municipal construction permit. After it’s built, the plant would need another health permit and a municipal operating license, Androbeto said.

“We can’t jump over the law,” García said, but the Health Ministry and the new solid waste commission might ask SETENA to give speedy consideration to projects that would responsibly deal with Costa Rica’s seemingly never-ending supply of garbage. García visited garbage systems in Brazil, Argentina and Chile Sept. 28 through Oct. 8.

The trip convinced him that a country like Costa Rica is capable of an “integral treatment” of solid wastes, he said, referring to good recycling systems, well-built landfills and clean cities.

In the country’s last major garbage study, Costa Rica said its 81 municipalities collected 1.28 million metric tons of trash in 2002, or 318 kilograms per person, just under a kilogram each day. If the ratio holds, the country now generates about 4000 tons of solid waste each day, about 2,500 tons of which end up in five active landfills. The rest goes into about 50 open-air dumps, all of them under orders to close, Androbeto said.

WPP Continental operates three landfills that receive 1,730 tons of waste each day: Río Azul, east of San José, Los Mangos, northwest of San José and Los Pinos, southeast of San José. Two months ago, the company passed operations of a 110-tonper-day landfill in the northern Pacific town of Carrillo, Guanacaste, to the local municipality, Juan José Lao said. Lao is a principal shareholder in the company’s Costa Rican operation, which was born of the U.S. company of the same name. The Canadian EBI group operates San José’s only landfill, La Carpio, which takes in about 750 tons daily. EBI hopes to open another landfill in Aserrí, south of the capital (TT, July 8, 15, 2005).

The infamously overflowing Río Azul landfill is set for “technical closure” in November (TT, Feb. 17). The landfill, originally to close in 1992, has survived several pronouncements of impending closure –Lao told The Tico Times WPP thinks it’ll survive this one too, as the money to close it properly simply isn’t there.

Currently, decomposing garbage at Río Azul generates 3.5 megawatts of electricity, said Enrique Morales of Saret Energy Systems. The corporation is two years into a 10-year contract to burn landfill-emitted methane in generators, selling electricity to the National Power and Light Company (CNFL), Morales said.

Electricity from garbage is a popular concept – at least two North American companies told The Tico Times they have agreements to incinerate certain municipalities’ trash through private, multi-million dollar electric plants. García said he likes the idea.

“Why should you bury garbage when you can get energy from it?” he said.

Incineration is a common approach in Japan, Europe and North America, said CYMA’s Sandra Spies. However, “the costs are rather high compared to what one pays here for trash to end in a sanitary landfill,” she said.Municipalities now pay about $12 a ton to send their trash away.

Many investors have attempted incineration projects here, said Edmundo Abellán, a trash expert for the municipal support institution IFAM.He hasn’t seen any make it past the Health Ministry, and said clean incineration is beyond Costa Rica’s budget.

Nevertheless, “the day is coming – if it’s not already here – when some ‘business person’ will opt to bring these plants and convince some politician to collaborate… soon, we’ll face an incineration project in our country,” Abellán said in a Sept. 7 written statement. Six years ago, Ecosystem Project, an Italian company, unsuccessfully proposed a $50 million gasification plant to turn San José’s garbage into electricity and bricks. In 2003, Fénix Medica’s plans for a Heredia medical waste incinerator were scrapped after local residents, fearful of air and water contamination, pressured the municipality to deny the company permission (TT, Oct. 24, 2003). In 2004, two foreign companies, EnPower and Eurotechnology, courted national and municipal governments with trash-to-energy plants (TT, June 11, 2004).

One of the towns, Liberia, was about to close an agreement with EnPower when the company “disappeared,” said Liberia’s garbage coordinator, Edwin Marín.

EnPower apparently resurfaced last week, however, having signed an agreement with the PuntarenasMunicipality to take all the city’s garbage for free. The company is planning to build a plant – once it gets the proper permits – to incinerate the trash and generate electricity, which it hopes to sell to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE).

In an unrelated venture, U.S. expatriate Bill Roush claims he’s ready to build a series of Swedish-style incineration plants for Heredia and Limón province municipalities.

In Sweden, 90% of household garbage is recycled, and organic material is processed separately, according to Magnus Schönning of Sweden’s Embassy in Canada. Swedish law holds companies responsible for the waste their products create. Twenty-nine waste-toenergy plants incinerate what garbage remains, Schönning told The Toronto Star.

According to CYMA, Costa Rica recycles only 10% of its garbage, and throws more than 30% into uncontrolled dumps.


Next: Foreigners share their plans to produce electricity with waste from parts of Puntarenas, Heredia and Limón.


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