From marine plastic to public living rooms, Panama City is recycling with resilience

Written by Resilient Cities Network
Thursday, 27 April 2023
  • Only 2% of around 34,000 tons of waste is recycled in Panama City, and a large amount of uncollected waste often ends in rivers and drains, leading to flooding during the rainy seasons.
  • The City of Panama is recycling its marine debris plastic and transforming it into furniture for public spaces around the city—approximately 60 tons of marine plastic are getting a second life and avoiding reaching Cerro Patacón, the only landfill in the city.
  • The Urban Ocean program provided knowledge and seed funding for the city to develop the solution. The project is a multisector collaboration between the Resilience Office and the Environmental Office of the Municipality in partnership with the Botellas de Amor Foundation.

The challenge

Panama City’s only landfill, Cerro Patacón, is fast approaching capacity and has become a health and environmental hazard. In June 2021, the city experienced an environmental and sanitary disaster as heavy rains brought about a landslide at the Cerro Patacón landfill. The leachate from the landfill overflowed, damaging the nearby treatment plant and incineration plant and contaminating the surrounding Guabinoso River (Forbes, 2021).

The city generates around 34,000 tons of waste monthly, and only 2% is separated for recycling. Large amounts of uncollected waste are left on the streets and eventually end up in rivers and drains, leading to flooding during the rainy seasons. The waste sector is responsible for 7% (0.34t CO2/inh) of total GHG emissions in the city, and the landfill accounts for 83% of all GHG emissions from the waste sector. 

Urgent action is needed to better manage the waste generated in the city, mitigate risks, and avoid further harm to the residents and the local environment.

Panama City’s solution

Aware of this, the Resilience Office and the Environmental Office of the Municipality went through a diagnostic and consultation process with the Urban Ocean program. They identified three key opportunities for the city:

1. Expanding the city’s role in recycling
2. Leveraging untapped potential for job creation
3. Improving waste management systems

The city aims to expand and consolidate the municipal role in recycling and recovering materials to reduce waste leakage into water bodies.

“Participation in the Urban Ocean program allowed us to access tools to create a targeted pilot with the objective of reducing the amount of discarded and degraded plastics. By applying the concept of circularity and fostering partnerships between the local government, NGOs, and the private sector, we were able to close the cycle of degraded plastics by converting them into urban furniture and parts for wheelchairs. As a resilient project, it combines environmental and social benefits, improving the quality of life of our citizens.”

Jannia Samuels, Deputy Chief Resilience Officer of Panama City

After the assessment, Urban Ocean provided seed funding to test a solution to recycle marine debris plastic and create plastic furniture for public spaces in Panama City.

With the Urban Ocean grant, the city acquired modern recycling technology that improves the process of recycling degraded plastic material and recycles up to 30 tons of plastic per month. This equipment is diverting marine plastic towards a recycling facility instead of the Cerro Patacón landfill, where it would usually end up. What was once marine debris is now being tested as furniture. Beyond reducing ocean plastic pollution and freeing the capacity of the city’s landfill, the unique furniture items have the potential to enhance public spaces for city residents. Planning with a resilience lens made possible this multipurpose and multi-benefit solution.

The pilot activities included:

  • Building the capacity of municipal public servants in the Municipality of Panama and Botellas de Amor Foundation on recycling methods to expand recycling in municipal schools.
  • Diverting all plastic, including marine debris plastic collected by the municipality to Botellas de Amor for recycling and making public furniture for an initial period of three years.
  • Placing public furniture created in the city’s Ecological Park improves the quality of this public space. Additionally, the city is reviewing the possibility of using recycled plastic to create wheelchair material—a request from the Public Health Department.

Our impact

By the end of 2023, Panama City will have:

Panama City’s engagement in Urban Ocean was also featured during the March, 2023 Our Ocean Conference in Panama City, with Jannia Samuels, Deputy Chief Resilience Officer of Panama City, speaking about the program. The event also included several dignitaries: the Minister of Environment for Peru, the Assistant Administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), a United States Senator, and a representative of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Urban Ocean is a capacity-building and accelerator program to end ocean plastic pollution and build more resilient communities in cities. Urban Ocean champions circular economy principles, builds awareness of ocean plastic, assesses waste management systems, and supports cities to develop projects that address the interrelated challenges of ocean plastics and resilience. Since 2020, the program has been implemented in cities across Asia and Latin America. The program is jointly implemented by Resilient Cities Network, Ocean Conservancy, and The Circulate Initiative.

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