Big Takeaways from Small-Scale Waste Management in Bocas del Toro, Panamá

(Image: @cristobal_o_)

The ways in which we manage our waste are key indicators of an intelligent society – and trash can also share a lot of information about who we are as individuals. Trash reveals what we value; it tells us about the things we create and consume, and shows us when something is no longer needed or wanted. Waste management is a direct reflection of how we organize the disposal of what we produce or, simply, how we take care of our trash. While trash is a problem everywhere, certain communities confront this challenge through waste management.

Due to the sudden rise in industrial activity and the lack of education regarding waste management, trash must be handled with care. Whether it be tourism, manufacturing, or the sudden inception of cheap foods and beverages (e.g. soda cans that cost less than water bottles or candy bars that cost less than fresh fruit), the waste from industrial activity has begun to overwhelm ecosystems that were once self-sustaining and thriving for centuries with low environmental impacts.

Bocas del Toro is one of these places; it is a tropical paradise, yet trash has polluted the area for decades. The root of the problem is that the majority of what is consumed on the island is imported, and those who have a proportionally-larger responsibility for waste generation are visitors. 100,000 tourists flock to the islands each year to soak in the Caribbean sun and blue waters, leaving noticeable impacts in their wake; fortunately, Bocas is dedicated to creating a positive impact. As the first place in Central America to ban plastic bags in 2017, the Bocas del Toro community has since exemplified this commitment through waste management.

(Image: @cristobal_o_)

Reducir, Reutilizar, Recyclicar

Unidos por Bocas (UpB) first began as an effort to clean up Bocas. After successfully installing trash bins around Bocas, supported by donations by local businesses and organizations, UpB was able to establish a waste management program. After implementing the bins and collecting the trash, Unidos por Bocas discovered that two-thirds of the waste produced was either plastic or other recyclable materials. With the help of Wasteless World, a nonprofit that organizes clean-up days, educational sessions, and community involvement, Bocas was able to confront waste management challenges by establishing a center for recycling on the island.

Compacted plastic cubes
Imploded glass from bottles and jars

Today, the Bocas Recycle Center is successfully collecting useful materials and recycling them back into supply chains to be used on the island and the mainland. By compacting plastics into easily-transportable cubes, the recycle center is able to send the materials back to the mainland in the same trucks that carried them to the island. This plastic is then used in the recycling process to create recyclable building materials. The collected glass can be imploded on-site at the center to be later mixed into a concrete solution to be used in much-needed infrastructure improvements.

In an ideal world, the recycling would be processed on the island using renewable energy from solar, wind, or waves; the newly recycled, reusable products would be distributed among community members and drive small-business growth; new jobs would be created in the markets of renewable energy and waste management. In order for this scenario to accelerate, startups must fill the gap while considering the needs of the community as well as the regulatory landscape.

Waste Management Regulations

In many parts of the world, municipal trash systems are paid for with tax dollars and provided as a service by the government. In other places, people pay private companies to have their trash picked up, and pay additional costs for compost or recycling. In Bocas del Toro, and many other parts of the growing world, the government cannot afford municipal trash services. The residents cannot pay for garbage services due to the high costs of living and low rates of pay and, out of necessity, dispose of their trash through illegal dumping or waste incineration.

Many city governments are willing to get creative and work with community members to create laws around waste management and implement policy; the challenge is enforcing these regulations. Before requiring people to compost, recycle, or properly dispose of waste, the community must ensure basic needs are taken care of; this challenge is not unique to Bocas and must be confronted worldwide. Fortunately, Bocas is a place where cultures collide and home to some incredible organizations making a difference.

Different representatives for organizations in Bocas del Toro.

Beginning August 1st 2022, businesses will be penalized if they don’t recycle; in response to the changing laws, Bocas Recycle Center recently started subsciption program for businesses to pay for recycling services. As for community members, Bocas Recycle Center and the government in Bocas del Toro are working on a proposal for a deposit program; in alignment with the UN sustainability goals and Agenda 2030, the recycling center would pay locals for their clean plastic and glass. Rather than creating a new program for aluminum cans, they will honor the current systems in the community, which allows locals to continue earning a modest wage by collecting and recycling the metal.

Community Involvement and Education: Keys for Sustainability

Access to better waste management services is important, yet education and community involvement cannot be overlooked. Organizing local clean-up days gets people involved; creating art or building with trash helps inspire citizens and regenerates funds into the community; education helps provide information around the negativel impacts of littering, the biolifespan on plastics, environmental problems with microplastics, and the importance of trash collection.

In order to create a solution, efforts must circulate around community members; these are the people who are most impacted by changes in waste streams, services, and regulations. In order for an organization to be successful, they must consider community needs, struggles, and goals for the future. Additionally, the solution must be self-sustaining (the root of the word sustainability). The resolution will include a combination of concentrated efforts fueled by non-profit organizations or start-ups, paired with education and awareness.

Closing the Loop on Small-Scale Waste Management

Everything and everyone is connected; this is obvious within small, island communities like Bocas del Toro, where candy bars wash up on the shores of those who have never tried junk food; smoke drifts from neighboring homes, indicating those in the community who are unable to afford trash services; trash sinks to the bottom of the sea, now a frequent visitor to coral reefs and aquatic communities.

Waste is an inevitable bi-product of creation; therefore, waste management systems must be prioritized as we consider the well-being of people, culture, and the environment. These challenges can also be viewed as a possibility for sustainable development; perhaps the changemakers will be lean companies who implement mobile recycling centers or maybe larger organizations who deploy small-scale renewable energy to power a closed-loop system. Regardless of where we are in the world, there is much to be gained from digging into how different communities deal with their trash; for local ecosystems, communities, and business growth, there is endless opportunity in confronting waste management challenges.

About The Author

Sarah White

Writer @ Smart Waste USA

Sarah White is a blog writer for Smart Waste USA, a company focused on improving waste management systems and generating awareness on how to make a positive impact on waste streams. While her focus as a writer is on clean,green tech, Sarah also works as a regenerative educator to share her enthusiasm for the environment and empower individuals with the knowledge and resources to make the world a more sustainable place.

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