Panama’s Slow But On-Going Journey to Sustainable Living

Recycling in Panama has come a long way, but there’s still room to grow…  

I have long been a nature lover and always thought I was doing my part. Turns out, I could have been doing more…

Garbage, Garbage, And More Garbage

Researching the Panamanian garbage system, I found that the current system stems from when the Panama Canal was built, which was more than 100 years ago. While it has never changed, it’s apparent that, with a booming economy, population growth, and immigration at an all-time high, the increase in waste is exponential.

There is a garbage epidemic in the country, much more so within certain areas and especially in the suburbs of Panama City and Colón. This has been a weighty issue in the 12 years of my living here, and the problem persists. 

New trucks and garbage containers were bought by the government, but the garbage seems to keep mounting and mounting. A proper system does not appear to exist. Weeks could pass without anybody collecting garbage, leading people to deposit their waste on street corners. Others would soon do the same, creating more filth. 

Obviously, something was and is still not working. What can we do to solve this problem?

Baby Steps And Early Beginnings

a child's depiction of recycling
Recycling as seen through the eyes of the author’s daughter

Recycling first grew as a concept a decade ago, becoming popular with a “feel good” mentality that was gradually spreading in the Panama City, especially among the higher echelons of society. It took a while for people to understand the difference between garbage and recyclables. It took more work to redirect minds on how to go about gathering material. Without these essentials, the recycling process falls apart. I have seen many instances where people really wanted to recycle, but treated all materials like garbage. They did not see the value of what they were throwing away. 

Additionally, at this time not many people were actually concerned with recycling, as the country was up in arms about whether to vote yes or no concerning the expansion of the Panama Canal during Martín Torrijos’ presidency. Recycling was not a major issue, although people in areas such as 24 de Diciembre, parts of Tocumen, Don Bosco, and San Miguelito were inundated in rubbish, yet residents went about their lives as usual in the muck and mire. Only a few local law firms and concerned citizens joined forces to encourage recycling in Panama, but soon more people began to follow suit.

Eventually, through constant pressure from international organizations for companies to comply with the ISO 14001:2015 standards for environmental management, businesses began to improve their green responsibility and include sustainability in their mandate. People working at these companies implemented these practices in their homes and encouraged their neighbors to do the same. 

Learning what to do and how to recycle took time. Companies invested in training workshops and organized events to test their knowledge. In the beginning, everything was mixed together, like used toilet paper and diapers with plastic and glass bottles. This process took time, effort, and years to show signs of improvement. 

Now, more minds have been emancipated and can decipher the difference between garbage and recycled material. Today, glass bottles, plastic bottles, white paper, colored paper, cans, metals, and cardboard are all being separated, cleaned, and wonderfully organized to be taken to recycling plants, but it has been a labor of love, and there is still room for improvement.

Where Do We Go?

Many people are now recycling and reusing material in Panama. Nevertheless, one of the challenges that they face is knowing what to do with the material. A few Panamanian recycling companies exist that buy material to resell to their larger, international counterparts. In most cases, these are found in neighborhoods like Perejil or along Vía Frangipani and Avenida Central, areas that are not quite safe. In the past, you had to venture into these spots to drop off what you collected and pick up the money earned from the materials you brought. 

a flyer from bliss panama recycling
What Bliss Panama will and won’t recycle

Luckily, some of these companies have begun collecting these materials themselves. If the money to be made off recyclables can support the cost of transportation and manual labor, they may consider picking up your stuff. In difficult times everyone is trying to make—and keep—a buck, and companies are searching for ways to be more cost effective. 

Even with gridlocked traffic at all hours of the day, it’s become a little easier for the common man to have his material picked up—for a small fee, of course. This may range between US$200 and US$500 on the high end, and some may even pick up your stuff for free. It all depends on the company you call and the amount and type of material you have. The best way to get in touch with local companies in your area is to check the yellow pages.

Recently, a small group of entrepreneurs created a carefully managed system of drop-off points, allowing you to find the most convenient place for you to recycle your materials. Go online and look up “Ruta del Reciclado,” then select “Panamá.” On the map that appears, you’ll see points marked PEV, which stands for “puntos de entrega voluntaria” (voluntary drop-off points)…

a map of panama city showing the recycyling centers
Voluntary drop-off points for recycling throughout Panama City

The Next Step…

Sustainable living. How can we do this? One easy and fun way to dip your toe into a more sustainable lifestyle is by reusing material for other purposes, such as decorating plastic soda and glass bottles and using them as pots for growing plants. Small glass bottles that used to carry scrumptious strawberry jam (my favorite) can also be used as drinking glasses, which are much healthier and safer to use than plastic cups. 

Spurred by the out-of-control garbage epidemic, more people are becoming aware of the need to recycle. It’s a most welcome trend. The process has been long overdue but necessary for the preservation of this beautiful paradise called Panama. 

People are catching on, and the idea is spreading, not as fast as it should, but there is hope. The potential is boundless, and I hope I will be present to experience the explosion of such green living.

Shaunette Bailey
Panama Insider