Puerto Ricans Face Uneasy Future After Hurricane Maria
By Wendy Becktold
As Hurricane Maria approached Puerto Rico on Tuesday, Sept. 19, Adriana Gonzalez prepared as well as she could. She readied her campstove, a supply of canned food and two seven-gallon jugs of water. By late afternoon, she and two friends hunkered down in her apartment in San Juan.
They had a restless night. At 11 p.m. the power went out. At around 1 a.m., they woke up to a roaring wind, followed by the sound of trees breaking. "They make a really specific sound, like thunder," Gonzalez told Sierra by phone on Monday. A large branch fell from the mahogany tree in front of her house.
By 6 a.m., it was raining hard. "It looked as if someone was dumping buckets of water from the sky," Gonzalez said. Despite the aluminum-shuttered windows and the precautions she had taken to keep them tight, water started pouring into the apartment. "It was like someone was hosing down my windows from the outside," she said. They used all the towels and sheets they could find to sop up the water.
Later on Wednesday, the storm had tapered down enough for Gonzalez to step outside. She emerged to see a world upended—debris-filled, flooded streets and damaged buildings. Overall, she counts herself lucky to have made it relatively unscathed through the worst hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico since 1932.
Now, like many other residents in the capital, Gonzalez is waiting to see what happens next. "Today we have better cellphone service," she said. "Tomorrow we might get water back." Much remains uncertain. With a curfew in place from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., the overall mood of the city is tense.
Most of the island's 3.5 million residents are without electricity and could be for months, though Puerto Rico's aging electrical system is so unreliable that many people, especially business owners, have their own generators—a perverse kind of bright side to the current predicament. On the radio, stores and restaurants in the capital are announcing that they are open for business.
But all of those generators run on gasoline, which is scarce. "Gas is on everyone's minds," Gonzalez said. "Yesterday, I saw one gas station that had a hundred cars. People were there with their chairs, playing dominoes."
According to government officials, there is no actual gas shortage. The problem has been transporting the fuel to stations. But the long lines feed people's anxieties: "You see all these people waiting for gas," Gonzalez said, "and you think that there is a crisis and you need to go get some."
The lack of communication with the rest of the island is also producing widespread anxiety. Cellphone service is still extremely limited. "People are starting to get desperate to hear from their family members," Gonzalez said. The news reports are grim: Entire towns along the coast destroyed; towns on the interior suffering major landslides; people running out of food and water as they wait for aid that has yet to arrive. "We know that there are supplies, but people are not seeing them because distribution is very slow," Gonzalez said.
After the storm subsided, the rain continued for two more days, dumping up to 40 inches on some parts of Puerto Rico. Some of the worst flooding was in Toa Baja, where officials opened the gates of a nearby dam while the city was also experiencing a storm surge. At least eight people died.
As an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club, Gonzalez is worried about other problems as well. "What happened in Toa Baja is terrible, but the town also has a huge oil refinery. There has been no conversation about that plant—did it flood? There is a total lack of information about possible contamination."
Another concern is a mountain of coal ash at a landfill in Guayama. The secretary of the Environmental Quality Board released an official statement saying that the site had not flooded and that the coal ash had not blown away in the heavy winds, but Gonzalez is skeptical. She's been texting contacts in both Toa Baja and Guayama but has yet to hear back from anyone.
Questions about the long-term recovery effort loom. FEMA normally requires localities to pay 25 percent of the emergency funding it provides, but Puerto Rico was in an economic crisis before the hurricane season started and will not be able to afford it.
Agriculture on the island was devastated, which means Puerto Rico will become even more dependent on imports. Gonzalez is already thinking about ways that she and the local chapter of the Sierra Club can help farmers recover.
She's also thinking about how to rebuild communities so that they are more resilient in future hurricanes. "We're not just looking at rebuilding but also at transforming what we had," she said, "because it's the only way that we're going to be able to move forward."
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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