Home to a small chain of islands off the east coast of mainland Panamá, Bocas del Toro Province offers more than what meets the eye. From an aerial view, this place is a Caribbean paradise, with curved pieces of verdant land scattered upon the azure ocean. Each island hosts a variety of communities and cultures, incredible biodiversity, and endless opportunities to dive into tropical bliss.
View from a beach in Bocas del Toro P.C. @cristobal_o_
As my plane approaches the main island, Isla Colon, I gaze below in wonder. While sitting in my air-conditioned seat, I reflect upon my last visit; I remember the feeling of wonderfully warm waters and the intensity of the sun on salty skin, yet my mind is heavy. Air travel creates a heavy carbon footprint, and tourism can seriously impact fragile oceanic ecosystems. Although my last visit was over seven years ago, clear memories pass through my mind: the smoke from burning waste, the smells from unprocessed sewage, and the sight of floating trash.
While the archipelago can support the residential population of 9,000, the influx of 100,000 tourists each year puts a strain on the local food, water, and waste systems. Similar to many growing countries, the development has outpaced the services. As a result of limited garbage disposal and recycling services, trash lurks in the ditches, washes up on the shores, and creates challenges for the local aquatic, avian, and riparian ecosystems.
Many years have passed since I last visited the province, yet Bocas remains the same in many ways; local people still greet incoming visitors with friendly faces, even though tourism greatly impacts the surrounding environment; the waves remain ideal for learning how to surf, the pristine beaches continue to offer peace, and both the jungle and underwater worlds are still infinitely mysterious. The homes and villages shine bright in vibrant, Caribbean colors – however, there is a noticeable change in the scenery.
Shoreline Village. P.C. @cristobal_o_
Trash remains a challenge on the island, but it has greatly improved; this is due to community-based waste management initiatives.
In 2017, Bocas del Toro became the first place in Central America to ban plastic bags. Around the same time, an organization named Unidos por Bocas (UpB) began uniting community members with the Municipality to address waste management on the island. Their slogan: “Helping make Bocas del Toro a cleaner place to live, work and play!”. As a result, UpB created a trash bin system where local businesses or individuals could sponsor one of 100 waste reciprocals installed in Bocas Town. The Municipality then agreed to manage the collection and disposal of the waste collected in these bins.
From here, awareness spread and efforts to eliminate litter on the island continued; yet when UpB began analyzing the collected trash, they noticed a large number of recyclable items within the trash bins. The ultimate solution for the recyclable material eventually led to the creation of the Bocas Recycle Center, a feat that could not have been possible without the voluntary work of the community, fueled by Wasteless World (WW). WW is non-profit organization whose ultimate goal is to shift perceptions around waste; by organizing countless clean-up days, collecting the recyclables and turning them into something of value, Wasteless World is helping evolve Bocas into a case study example of how an island can be self-sustaining.
Bocas Recycling Center, Drop-Off Window.
On such a small island, Bocas is fortunate to have countless organizations that care about preserving and protecting the natural beauty of the entire archipelago. During my last visit to Bocas del Toro, I was fortunate to become more aware of this conscious community and learn about the progress within waste management by spending time in the recycling center.
After taking my first steps into the Bocas Recycle Center, I could not contain my excitement: “Woah, I’m in a MRF!”
My fellow sorters looked at me with curiosity as I explained: when I am not traveling as an ecotourist, I create educational content for Smart Waste USA; the company is focused on improving waste management systems and generating awareness on how to make a positive impact on waste streams. Our industry uses the acronym ‘MRF,’ which stands for Material Recovery Facility. Everyday, MRFs manage all the recycling that enters a facility and then ensure it goes into the correct streams where materials and resources can be used again. Without MRFs, we would still reduce and reuse these materials, but we could not recycle them.
A day volunteering in the recycling center presented numerous opportunities to connect with the community and, also, learn about what really goes on in a MRF. I grimaced while pouring out the remaining rum from the brown glass, yet smiled with satisfaction while separating it from clear Corona bottles. I wondered whether someone was sponsored by Coca-Cola as I twisted red caps off countless plastic containers. I appreciated the jars of peanut butter, mayonnaise, and salsa that arrived, cleaned with care, reflecting the community’s efforts to make the MRF’s job as easy as possible. I would attempt my best Spanish with locals who stopped in to drop off their recycling (an interaction that often ended in me learning new vocabulary and both of us having a laugh at the expense of my language skills).
The process was straightforward: sort glass bottles by color, sort plastics by numbers, and separate out aluminum cans. Anything else, including paper, tin, or various oddities, was sent to the dump. While the goal of the Bocas Recycle Center is to eventually collect everything, including the tricky things like lightbulbs, paints, or batteries, the current efforts have made a huge impact.
The glass, once sorted, is imploded in a machine and then wheelbarrowed to a colored pile; with this material, Bocas Recycle Center makes concrete bricks to sell to the Municipality to repave parts of town that need infrastructure repair. The funds from selling these bricks and help keep the center self-sustaining.
The plastic is compacted into a machine and then wrapped in large, lightweight cubes; technological advancements allow these cubes to be transformed into building materials, which requires a large amount of energy. Because Bocas’ sole source of power is a generator that runs on diesel, transported by tanker to the island, it makes it more carbon neutral to send the plastic cubes back to the mainland to complete this loop – however, Bocas Recycle Center does this with environmental intelligence. The cars and trucks that come to Bocas on the ferry deliver food, water, and supplies, and they often return to the mainland empty. With clear communication and some strategy, Bocas Recycle Center made arrangements with some of these transport companies to backhaul compacted plastics to the mainland recycling facilities that pay per kilogram, ensuring every trip carries something of value.
Cubes of plastic to be shipped to the mainland.
In Bocas del Toro, the community members are those who are responsible for creating treasures from the trash; they have transformed their waste management challenges into regenerative solutions. From the Plastic Bottle Castle to the countless nonprofits, Bocas is dedicated to cleaning up its act. Fortunately, if you are a tourist visiting the area, many organizations are always eager to accept volunteers, including Wasteless World, Planet Rehab, and countless others.
At the Bocas Recycle Center, the workers (mainly volunteers) are the ones who ensure everything is going into the right streams; they are the true heroes of the recycling process. Recycling clearly reflects taking unified responsibility for the waste we create. Human hands will always be needed to solve the problems that we ourselves create, and we cannot do it alone.