Part two in a two-part series
Costa Rica’s 4.2 million citizens produce an estimated 4,000 metric tons of garbage every day, equivalent to 355 school buses.
Over half of that is split between five landfills, while the rest of it goes to 50 open-air dumps, all of which are under Public Health Ministry orders to close.
As the municipalities around the country struggle to figure out what to do with the heaps of waste they are required to pick up from their citizens, entrepreneurs have sprung up offering slick proposals, particularly plants that burn garbage and produce electricity.
Edmundo Abellán, a trash expert with the Institute for Municipal Development (IFAM), says he has seen many such proposals pitched, but to date not one has made it past the Health Ministry, which must issue such a project a permit (TT, Oct.13).
At least two U.S. expatriates are making such offerings to different municipalities in Costa Rica.
Trash Burning for Children?
“Once I start my plants, the need for landfills will no longer exist,” said U.S. businessman Bill Roush, who is promoting his “Eco Planta,” which he says would recycle or incinerate 3,000 tons of trash per day, producing electricity and funding children’s organizations.
According to Roush, 17 municipalities, led by Heredia, have “pretty strong agreements” to send garbage to his proposed plant near Guápiles, over the mountains east of San José. At the Eco Planta, trash would be dumped into a pit, shredded, steamed, sanitized, sorted for recyclables and what is left would be packed into briquettes to fuel electric generators, Roush said.
While officials at many of these 17 municipalities told The Tico Times they were unfamiliar with Roush’s plans, the mayor of Heredia, a municipality of approximately 115,400 residents just north of San José, said the city is considering Roush’s proposal. Heredia Mayor Javier Carvajal said he likes the idea of using trash to make money.
Roush, a former Texas insurance man, said he plans to split profits between children’s programs and participating municipalities, which would pay about $11 per ton to send their garbage to his company.
His company, World Safety C.A., would produce about 15 megawatts of electricity, claimed Roush, who said he’s working out the final details of a $38 million loan from a U.S. group called Phoenix Funding.
“It’s a bit of a risk,” Phoenix Funding’s George Dixon told The Tico Times, but the lending company is confident the Eco Planta will succeed. Phoenix Funding recently financed $100 million of a Foxwood Casino expansion in Connecticut, Dixon said, and has worked with large hotels in Mexico.
Dixon said World Safety’s loan should go through within 60 days.
Costa Rica’s solid waste advisor to the Public Health Ministry, Dr. Edgar García, said Roush’s “ecological and economical” proposal caught the ministry’s eye by offering profits to a children’s vaccination program.
Much of the Eco Planta’s technology is in sanitizing the trash and pulling out all recyclables, said Fabio Morales, a Costa Rican engineer contracted by Roush’s World Safety C.A. The rest, called cellulosics, would be made into mostly organic, low-moisture briquettes to be combusted in furnaces, producing steam to turn generators. World Safety estimated two-thirds of its intake will be agricultural waste, and the rest, general municipal collections.
Roush showed The Tico Times a handful of support letters from the former Minister of Environment and Energy, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, the Carbon Finance Unit of the World Bank and Mayor Carvajal.
The latter indicated six other Heredia province municipalities are interested in the Eco Planta. Not all of these remember such an interest when consulted by The Tico Times, however, and not all mayors of the towns Roush mentioned as partners were familiar with his proposal.
San Rafael de Heredia was on both lists – Mayor Jorge Herrera said he remembers some sort of proposal a few years ago, but has heard nothing since. San Rafael, north of San José, boasts a three-year-old recycling station, and, like the town of Heredia, contracts its garbage removal with private waste-management company WPP.
Siquirres, a Limón-province town on Roush’s list, is taking steps to build its own landfill, Mayor Miguel Quirós told The Tico Times. Siquirres, as part of an association of banana-producing towns, had conversations with Roush, but didn’t formalize anything, he added.
Like Sugar Cubes in Coffee
Ken Roblyer is a U.S. businessman in Costa Rica also pitching his trash-burning, electricity-producing project. Gregarious and exuding confidence, Roblyer has been traveling back and forth between Costa Rica and his home state of Oklahoma for nearly five years trying to make his plant a reality.
Now, after different dealings with different municipalities (TT, June 11, 2004), he says his perseverance and “Oklahoman bullheadedness” is beginning to pay off. Dressed in a dark-blue blazer with gold buttons, jeans and cowboy boots, Roblyer recently signed an agreement with the Municipality of Puntarenas – the principal port town on the central Pacific coast – to take all of the town’s trash, free of charge.
Following the Oct. 5 signing and press conference held in the Puntarenas mayor’s office, Roblyer cheerfully handed out University of Oklahoma Sooners baseball caps to everyone present.
Roblyer is promising a $60 million, 30-megawatt power plant that will feed off the municipality’s waste. After recyclables, toxic materials and other non-burnable trash have been removed, the garbage will be put into a giant cylinder with a super-hot liquid at the bottom, called a “fluidized bed boiler system.”
Ed Dobner, spokesman for Roblyer’s company Environmental Power S.A. (EnPower), explained that the liquid is a silicone-based substance similar to sand heated to between 1,400-1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The trash would melt into the liquid “like sugar cubes in coffee,” Dobner explained.
The heat would be used to create steam to turn turbines to generate electricity. The plant and the garbage collection and transfer station (two different sites, both in the Puntarenas area) would require almost 150 employees from the area, Dobner continued.
Puntarenas, a town of approximately 114,800 inhabitants, dumps about 250 tons of garbage a day into its nearby Zagala landfill.
EnPower’s plant would be flexible, being able to run on anywhere from 200 tons of garbage per day on up, Dobner said. While 400 tons per day is ideal, the plant would be able to grow to handle much more trash, he added.
Roblyer said he hopes to eventually build five plants around Costa Rica, and take agricultural and other types of waste as well.
The Oklahoman told reporters at the signing his plan has the approval of the Comptroller General’s Office, and that he has a pre-purchase agreement from the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) for the electricity he would produce. He added he is “in negotiations” to determine at what price his company would sell ICE the electricity.
The comptroller did not return The Tico Times’ request for information on the project by press time. Javier Orozco, Director of Planning for ICE’s electricity expansion, told The Tico Times the institute is in communication with EnPower, but not “in negotiations.”
“There is nothing formal so far,” Orozco said. “We have not yet sat down to negotiate a price.”
Orozco told The Tico Times ICE is interested in new sources of electricity, especially if the projects can resolve other problems like trash-incineration plants would. But, Orozco continued, the plants must have all required permits and the price must be reasonable.
“It cannot be the electricity consumer who pays to resolve the (trash) problem,” Orozco said.
Armed with the Puntarenas agreement, Roblyer must now obtain approval from the Environment and Energy Ministry’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA) (“we already meet their requirements,” Dobner assured), permits from the Health Ministry and the municipality for construction and an agreement with the ICE to sell the electricity.
Roblyer says his project is on the level, and cites as evidence the years it has takenfor him to get this far.
“It’s taken much longer because we’ve gone the honest route,” he added.