Earth Day ’21 marked by cross-sector effort to better Puerto Rico, the planet
Today, as the world observes the annual Earth Day celebration — under the “Restore Our Earth” motto — a cross-sector of industries have stepped forward to show their commitment to a better Puerto Rico and planet.
Restoring the planet encompasses ongoing individual and collective efforts to achieve results in the short-, middle-, and long-term. It also calls for effecting strategies in the government, private and academic sectors.
In Puerto Rico, nonprofit entities such as Para la Naturaleza and Scuba Dog Society conduct year-round efforts to conserve the island’s natural ecosystems.
Para La Naturaleza manages all of the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust’s natural assets — including the Hacienda Buena Vista in Ponce, the Hacienda la Esperanza in Manatí and the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve in Fajardo, among others. This organization will be giving away trees to plant until April 24th, following a reservation system observing safety guidelines established to combat COVID-19.
This movement looks to encourage the citizens of Puerto Rico to plant more trees and live more consciously about how their actions directly affect the environment. Para la Naturaleza’s goal is to plant all 10,000 trees and expedite carbon sequestering.
During the month of April, hundreds of volunteers from the Scuba Dogs Society have removed more than 5,500 pounds of trash from beaches and reefs throughout the island, with more than 3,000 pounds of trash being found off of the coasts of Mayagüez. Among the items recovered were 48 tires, two television sets, four mattresses, multiple couches, and a jet-ski.
As part of the initiative, volunteers cleaned some of the island’s most visited beaches and reefs, such as Icacos, Cayo Aurora, El Escambron, la Pocita, Jobos, Tres Palmas, Seven Seas, and Cerro Gordo, among others. The items the organization found with greatest frequency were drink cans, glass and plastic bottles, disposable plates and silverware, plastic fragments, foam, tires, disposable gloves, and disposable masks.
The nonprofit also confirmed that through this initiative, volunteers were able to rescue multiple marine animals that had become trapped in garbage, including fish, crabs, star fish, and anemones. Once rescued, they were released back into the ocean.
“This rescue provided one of the most gratifying and educational parts of the event, we became direct witnesses of the harmful effects waste on marine life and the importance of reversing these effects on our ecosystem,” said Ana Trujillo, the executive director of Scuba Dog Society.
Saving the planet also calls for sustainable agriculture and a minimization of food waste. Earthday.org, the entity that sponsors Earth Day events, says to feed the world, the latest techniques to support farmers must be adopted. It describes a concept called “foodprint, which measures the environmental impacts associated with growing, producing, transporting, and storing our food — from the natural resources consumed to the pollution produced to the greenhouse gases emitted.”
It also discusses regenerative farming, which “promotes the health of degraded soils by restoring their organic carbon. Regenerative agriculture sequesters atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
In Yauco, Gustos Coffee Co. has a coffee operation that uses up all of the elements of the harvest, including coffee waste, which is ideal for fertilizing and nurturing plants, whether indoors or in the garden, as it contains minerals, phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium.
The planting of coffee plantations under shade and high up help capture and retain rainwater. Coffee plantations help preserve forests and conserve water, promote the production of oxygen, absorb and store carbon in the trunks and in the roots of coffee bushes, “sequestering” the accumulation of carbon dioxide, which could result in reducing the greenhouse effect.
Another important contribution is that it serves as an ecosystem to preserve species and promotes reforestation. According to the New York Times, global warming is an impact factor on coffee cultivation and in regions of the planet where Arabica coffee is traditionally grown, a significant impact has been recorded.
Through the Gustos Foundation, owners Omar Torres and Grisel León have supported the expansion of the coffee crops by donating trees to farmers in the region. Over the past three years, the nonprofit has donated more than 100,000 small trees resistant to plagues to boost the island’s premium coffee crops.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 30-40% of the available food supply contributes to food waste in the United States and Puerto Rico. In 2010, an approximate $162 billion worth of food, 133 billion pounds, ended up in landfills.
Based on this, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that each person in the United States contributes to about 219 pounds of disposed food each year. In 2015, the USDA partnered with the EPA, with plans to eradicate 50% of the country’s food waste by 2030. Are businesses in Puerto Rico doing everything that they can to contribute to this goal?
Currently, there are no regulations that require restaurants on the island to reduce their food waste. The Puerto Rico Restaurants Association confirmed to News is my Business that it is the responsibility of each restaurant to establish their own policy on food waste, citing that the association serves to educate restaurant owners and does not have the authority to regulate or impose policy. It is unclear if they offer education or guidelines as to how to reduce food waste.
The USDA and EPA have established that the best way to prevent food waste “is not to create it in the first place.” They add that if excess is inevitable, it should be donated to hunger relief organizations or people in need. If the food is inedible and cannot be donated, it can be used for animal feed or compost.
A carbon footprint is defined as the excess emission of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels, the production of certain materials, roads, through means of transportation, and many more. This phenomenon is one of the greatest accelerators of global warming.
The EPA believes that the best way to battle Puerto Rico’s carbon footprint is by undergoing a process of carbon sequestration, capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, through the planting of trees.
“After the Hurricanes Irma and María, Puerto Rico lost a significant number of trees, this accelerated global warming causing many situations much like unbearable heatwaves. For this and other reason, we’re looking to reforest the island and better the environment,” said Brenda Reyes, community relations specialist for the EPA.
Other efforts to reduce that footprint also include recycling, which the private sector has been championing in Puerto Rico for several years.
For example, financial institution FirstBank, through its “One with the Environment” program, marks Earth Day by donating to nonprofit organization Martín Peña Recicla. For this year’s effort, the bank collected 5,195 cellphones that were dropped off at its branches, and recycled them to generate a donation.
“This donation is intended to support the surrounding communities of the Martín Peña Channel so they can continue developing projects aimed at reducing and managing solid waste in those communities,” said Carmen Pagán, the senior vice president of compliance and community reinvestment of FirstBank.
Since 2014, through the FirstBank cellphone recycling program known as “Dona tu Celu” in alliance with the E-Cycling electronic equipment recycling program in Humacao, a total of 17,219 cellphones have been recycled, which represent 3,500 pounds less contamination, and a total of $15,595.65 has been donated to Martín Peña Recicla, based on the value of the recycled equipment.
“The cell phones we have recycled in the past seven years represent a total of 3,500 pounds of electronic waste that we prevented from having a detrimental impact, since their hazardous substances remain in the environment for long periods of time. At E-Cycling, we work with high security standards; confidential information found on the donated phones is destroyed automatically,” said José Rivera, an engineer and the president of E-Cycling de Puerto Rico Inc.
Meanwhile, beauty brand Lancome has launched a new sustainability program, under the “Caring Together for a Happier Tomorrow” slogan. The goal is to empower consumers to make environmentally conscious decisions about the products they purchase by offering refillable and reusable products.
As part of this initiative, the brand has announced that they will be installing fountains to refill their famous perfume, Idole, at authorized retailers. These fountains are already operating in Puerto Rico.
Lancome aspires that all of its best-selling perfumes and skin care products will be 100% refillable by 2025. That same year, they also hope that 70% of ingredients used will be renewable, and that 30% of their glass is recycled. By 2030, their goal is to only use materials made from biological or recycled sources.
Another beauty products firm, L’Oreal — in collaboration with Kiehl’s and Basura Cero — has established a recycling center for electronic devices, such as cell phones, computers, and tablets. The center is located on the second level of Plaza las Americas, inside the “Tu Comunidad tiene una Plaza,” space and will be operating from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. until April 24th.
The center also features an informational booth that offers details about the company’s “L’Oreal for the Future” program, which promotes sustainable practices.
Environmental sustainability has not gone unnoticed at the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino, which recently got a nod from renowned travel experience site The Points Guy, for “being one of the most sustainable and planet-friendly resorts to enjoy a vacation.
In keeping with Earth Day, The Points Guy publication described the property as one of the eight hotels on Earth that best protect the environment. Among the attributes they mentioned was that it has a worldwide LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, together with the Marriott Bonvoy points and rewards system for travelers.
Roberto Mosquera, general manager of the Sheraton Puerto Rico, said “this distinction allows us to continue positioning ourselves before travelers from all over the world who are looking for sustainable brands, experiences and destinations that do not affect our planet.”
In the manufacturing sector, which is Puerto Rico’s largest economic sector, which some $86 billion in annual sales, has spent more than five decades working with public policy and issues to develop sustainable operations, as well as educating, said Geannette Siberón, chairwoman of the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association’s Environmental Committee.
“We want to develop manufacturing operations and products that are more aligned with the environmental conservation priorities that we have worldwide,” she said. “So, at the PRMA, 39% of our 876 partners are involved in production and the other 71% offer services within the supply chain that provides services to manufacturing.”
“It’s an important group, therefore the PRMA believes it’s important to address the issue of environmental sustainability in the daily discussion at the industrial level and in the community because the scarcity of natural resources worldwide is progressive,” Siberón said.
“We have to learn to operate in facilities where we will have fewer or more expensive resources such as energy, water and air quality that deteriorates with climate change and different natural situations,” she said.
The environmental committee has developed several tools that help the industry implement sustainability programs. Siberón said developing innovation has allowed industries to learn from best recycling practices and share strategies with each other, achieving up to 90% recycling.
On April 23, the PRMA and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) will host a virtual seminar on the permitting process for well water franchises and the information on aquifers in Puerto Rico. The workshop will run from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and participants may register at www.industrialespr.org.
Academia creates environmental stewards
Rounding out the most important group of players that contribute to climate and environmental literacy are universities.
“Combined with civic education, climate and environmental literacy will create jobs, build a green consumer market, and allow citizens to engage with their governments in a meaningful way to restore our earth,” says Earth.org.
In Puerto Rico, Sacred Heart University has implemented a Bachelor’s degree program in Sustainable Development to educate professionals through an interdisciplinary learning and training experience, which encourages the analysis of local and global problems from different perspectives (social, economic, environmental and cultural).
The program also seeks to train students so that they have the ability to get involved or create initiatives that promote the configuration of sustainable cities in Puerto Rico. The Bachelor of Arts in Sustainable Development has the support of the Collaborative Innovation Center-NEEUKO, the Community Bonding Center, Nuestro Barrio, Sagrado Careers and Studio Lab.
One example of a student who is already on board with promoting sustainable consumption is soon-to-graduate Santiago Ramírez-Ávila. The Colombian native has created a relationship with the Neeuko Collaborative Innovation Center team to launch Proyecto Génesis, which seeks to promote sustainable consumption habits in the student ecosystem through incentives and art demonstrations.
“Proyecto Génesis consists of a machine that works like a dispenser, but inverted. This collects separately, the clean water bottles and their caps to store them near the Sofia Center located in the university,” Ramírez- Ávila said.
“After that, it goes to an interactive screen, where a count is carried out (with the student ID) of the number of bottles that are being recycled. An animation is presented on the screen, with images and informative videos. This way, the user is presented, in an interactive way, the positive impact they are having on the environment,” he explained.
The machine that Proyecto Génesis uses will give incentives in the form of coupons that can be used with companies linked to this project.
“The amount of water bottles that each student will be recycling will have a count. Each recycled bottle will be equivalent to 500 points, since that is the average number of years it takes for a plastic bottle to decompose,” Ramírez- Ávila said.
The points given can be redeemed for merchandise that discourages the use of single-use plastics. Ramírez- Ávila seeks to consciously innovate to help both Puerto Rico and the rest of the planet in their fight against pollution and climate change.
What begins as an intention can become a model for change and action with the right support, he said.
Reporters Daniela Valdes-Bennet, Kiara Visbal-González, Ana Bisbal-López and María Victoria Arenas contributed to this story.