Wasteless World: A Proposal for the Bocas del Toro Plastic Problem

Bocas del Toro recycling is coming!

– Tom Wright has a vision of a world with community-lead plastic recycling workshops so that small villages everywhere can do something productive with their plastic waste.

– Wright founded Wasteless World with this first objective in mind and the overall mission of being able influencing global policy to a more sustainable future.

– So far, Wright has personally invested in infrastructure to launch a plastic recycling workshop in Bocas del Toro, recruited volunteers, initiated Saturday clean-ups in the community and is now fundraising for the rest of the necessary capital to initiate production of taking post-consumer plastic and turning it into building materials (plastic lumber).

 

“How do I make a difference in this world?” is the question Tom Wright asked himself before starting his Wasteless World movement. An Australian traveling Latin America, he was connecting with the beautiful and diverse landscapes and its lovely people, but he also became disturbed by the contrasting imagery of the consumer waste in small rural villages from Mexico to Peru and everywhere in between. His vision became clear: to create community-run plastic recycling workshops that could introduce a new economy while at the same time  reducing plastic waste. That is what brings Wright and his Wasteless World project to the islands, with a bold proposal to contribute to recycling in Bocas del Toro.

Bocas del Toro recycling

“Public enemy number one” – This image is from the Wasteless World clean-up of the the La Solución neighborhood on February 6, 2021. Photography courtesy of Gaby Dusich.

Small Islands, Big Plastics

The pioneer in addressing the Bocas del Toro consumer waste issue is Mr. Robert Bezeau with his Plastic Bottle Village. As part of his research, in 2014 he was able to estimate that there are 2.5 million beverages (plastic, glass and cans) per year consumed by visitors to islands alone. This is based on data from the ATP (Panama Tourism Authority) and does not even include beverages consumed by year-round residents.

Then in 2019, the non-profit Unidos Por Bocas coordinated with local grocers and they were able to estimate that as many as 140,000 units of disposable plastic and glass products are sold every month on the archipelago of Bocas del Toro. A very small amount of glass is repurposed, and a lot of cans do actually get recycled, however pretty much 100% of the plastic ends up in a landfill in the center of Isla Colon, or worse…

Unfortunately, the final destination for a number of single-use products in Bocas del Toro happens to be the jungle, the sea, infiltrating all local ecosystems, and eventually, the microplastics enter our food chain via fish and become a part of us.

    • By 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.
    • At least 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans each year. That’s similar to emptying a garbage truck of plastic into an ocean every minute.
    • There is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way.
    • The average person eats 74,000 microplastics each year, which polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from plastics are linked to harmful health effects, including various cancers, a weakened immune system, reproductive problems and more.
    • The demand for plastic products is expected to grow up to 36% in the next 6 years.

These are just a few alarming bits from studies surrounding plastic. If you are interested in learning more, visit medium.com, globalcitizen.org, and The Washington Post. I would like to assume that the average reader of The Bocas Breeze already understands the magnitude of our planet’s plastic pollution problem.

It’s unknown exactly how long plastics will take to break down. It is longer than we could ever know at this point; longer than our lifetimes at least, as it is estimated to be 300-1,000 years depending on the type of plastic.

So if this stuff is here to stay, is that how we really wish to immortalize it?

This plastic longevity is unwelcomed in nature’s ecosystems, however, many creative engineers and environmentalists are seeing its usefulness in building materials; the sort of thing that is supposed to be built to last…

 

Lumber made from recycled plastic

The Wasteless World Proposal 

Tom Wright is on a mission to create a community-run plastic workshop that shreds, melts and molds post-consumer plastic into various shapes of typical lumber sizes used for building. He is proposing a system where the community members can participate and benefit by collecting, cleaning, sorting and delivering the plastic. They will be compensated with a payment relative to the weight of the usable plastic. The final product, the plastic lumber, is then sold as building materials to fund the necessary operation costs. The production is relatively simple and Wright has been diligently studying it for the last few years in preparation for this Wasteless World launch.

In his quest to make a difference, Wright learned about a project called “Precious Plastics,” a small-scale plastic workshop in the Netherlands. This discovery inspired him to embark on hours upon hours of research- reading articles, watching videos, contacting companies that specialize in manufacturing recycled plastic products, inquiring about their machinery, getting advice, making connections and asking about their practices.

“I thought, if we could create a small business model that actually turns rubbish into something valuable, perhaps we could then inspire people within these communities to set up their own self-sustaining, full circle business that sorts out their plastic problem, and also gives something back to the community,” Wright recalls about his original inspiration. “I’m a surfer, a nature lover. I love the ocean, so this plastic problem kills me. It’s been out of control for a while. So, if I could come up with a solution, then- what better thing to do with my time?”

Wright was living in Colombia while developing this idea; adapting and evolving the Netherlands-based model to fit the dynamics of Latin America. He had prepared to launch it in Taganga, a small Caribbean fishing village on the foothills of the famous glacier-topped La Sierra Nevada Santa Marta mountain. Wright is looking to eventually expand this idea to any other smaller communities that have the potential to redirect their plastic waste into something productive. In fact, he vows to keep the plans open-source, so that it’s impact can spread further, faster and be improved upon by other like-minded individuals. In the end, circumstances lead to Wright and his partner Carolina Castañeda relocating to Panama in January of 2020 and now they have their sights set on Bocas del Toro for Wasteless World’s inaugural plastic workshop.

Tom Wright leads a group of volunteers on a Saturday beach clean up in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Tom Wright is pictured leading the charge on a Saturday morning Wasteless World clean-up.


Tom Wright and his Bocas del Toro journey 

Mr. Wright joined me for a Saturday morning interview, just a week before he spearheaded the Wasteless World Saturday clean-ups. We got to know each other and delved into this important topic so I could fully understand his very bold proposal. I found him passionate, enthusiastic, dedicated, charismatic, and with the right amount of confidence. Though he is quite knowledgeable on pollution and this plastic lumber concept that he has researched at lengths, he will be the first to admit that he is not an engineer, nor has a PhD in environmental science. So just who is this plastic recycling visionary?

Tom Wright hails from Byron Bay, which is a popular tourist destination on the most easterly point of Australia. The area is known for its beautiful biodiversity and there is a deep sense of environmental ethos in the community, which has been ingrained in Wright from his very beginnings. He comes from a business background and spent his early professional life in marketing, public relations, and administration positions of non-profit organizations, most notably Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, which he helped raise $1.2 million for in one year for the medical volunteer organization. Wright also spent time working in the administration of a Solar Energy company in Australia. He is in favor of renewable energy. He left Australia a decade ago with his younger sister, to explore Latin America, supporting himself through e-commerce endeavors and other short-term opportunities along the way, all the while developing his action plan to contribute to his vision of a Wasteless World.

If you were to ask me, the man of the hour is a talented and motivated fellow with a deep sense of purpose. His heart is 100% into this project. All words and actions point to a person who cares deeply about this issue and is doing his best to bring about a solution. I do believe his background has suited him well for the brave role. It is not easy to put yourself out there as an expert for something like this, and much less in a community to which you are relatively new. Not to mention, big ideas like this tend to be shot down quickly on the internet by seasoned local naysayers (and do-littles) via message boards on social media. However, this proposal was met with a lot of positive feedback and willingness to collaborate. “Together we can” is the slogan of Wasteless World and in Bocas del Toro- together we can, indeed!

Tom Wright and Carolina Castañeda are holding bags of rubbish they cleaned in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Tom Wright and Carolina Castañeda on an island clean-up, 2020.

Collaborative Efforts

One day Wright was passionately talking about his project and caught the ear of Sterling Hoppman. Hoppman is one of the founding members of Unidos Por Bocas. This group is responsible for the over 100 public trash bins in the community and has since developed a design for a plastic collection and deposit system that was accepted by the Bocas del Toro municipal council in 2019. Hoppman saw the potential for a symbiotic relationship between Wright’s project and that of Unidos Por Bocas, so he arranged for a virtual meeting. The discussion was a good one and Unidos Por Bocas is interested in coordinating efforts once both projects are up and running.

Unidos Por Bocas’ deposit and collection system is one where the group would produce stickers to be sold to the supermarkets, placed on plastic bottles by the same supermarkets, with the cost of the sticker being passed onto the consumer as a deposit charge (and in turn a slight profit for the supermarket to incentivize their sticker work). The plastic bottles can then be returned to the collection center for a deposit payment -of which any and all plastic bottles can be returned- however a higher value will be paid out for the bottles with the Unidos Por Bocas sticker on it. The original sale of the sticker to the supermarkets less the deposit cost paid out when returned is designed to yield a profit that will sustain the operating costs of the collection center.

Now, what to do with all that plastic once it’s collected? It seems like perfect synergy for where the Wasteless World movement could fit in. In our interview, Wright expressed how thrilled and honored he is at the opportunity to be able to join in on the effort of tackling the plastic problem by coordinating efforts with Unidos Por Bocas. He says that the groundwork, track record and overall reputation of Unidos Por Bocas shows that there is already great interest in the issue and work being done by serious people who want to achieve the same goal. Both Unidos Por Bocas and Wasteless World have opened productive channels of communication with Bocas del Toro’s local municipality, which is another major positive step in achieving a coordinated effort for this massive, complicated challenge. The Bocas del Toro municipality has even participated in every Saturday clean-up that has been organized by Wasteless World.

Volunteers cleaning up Carenero Island in Bocas del Toro as part of the Wasteless World Saturday clean ups

The Bocas del Toro municpal government is supportive of Wasteless World and Unidos Por Bocas. This could be the makings for a serious public-private partnership that can finally gets Bocas del Toro recycling started in a big way.

 

Before Tom Wright arrived to Bocas del Toro in January of 2020, Unidos Por Bocas had planned to coordinate with Mr. Fredy Ramirez of the Changuinola based plastic recycling company Reciplastic. The company is already doing essentially the same thing that Wright and Wasteless World aspire to do: turning post-consumer plastic into building materials. In fact, there are people on the island already building with his product, which signals that there is a market for the plastic lumber. Upon learning about the Changuinola plastic recycling business, Wright was eager to contact Ramirez and see how they could possibly collaborate, however, to this day, after reaching out numerous times, Wright has had no luck in being able to speak with anyone from Reciplastic. Wright is not alone on this one. Many others, including The Bocas Breeze writing staff, have had issues getting consistent email or telephone responses. Ramirez has since gained a reputation for being hard to contact. On Isla Colon, the word is that Reciplastic stays very busy with their operation, and is perhaps overwhelmed, which may be the reason that it is so difficult to reach them.

Whatever the case may be, it has been established that there is so much plastic waste generated in the archipelago alone – especially on the main island of Colon- that it would be more practical, and use less resources, to establish a plastic processing plant on Isla Colon. In fact, Reciplastic made a presentation to the Bocas del Toro Rotary Club in 2019 and this was a recommendation of the Rotary Club: to establish another processing plant centrally located on the main island of the archipelago, as to eliminate the need to ship the island’s plastic to the mainland city of Changuinola. It seems like Reciplastic is too busy in Changuinola to start a whole other plant elsewhere, so Wasteless World spearheading this project locally makes sense to the residents of the Bocas del Toro islands. The plastic waste is here, there seems to be a market for plastic lumber, but more importantly, there is so much interest in putting an end to plastic pollution.

plastic lumber and its benefits durable long lasting water and chemical resistant insect and mold resistant nonporous sustainable zero maintanence

How does it all work exactly?

The process is relatively simple. It involves really only two significant pieces of machinery: the shredder and the extrusion drill; one of which Wright already has in his possession, the shredder, and the other is the focal point of his fundraising campaign- the extruder.

First, the plastic is cleaned and sorted according to its type, cut into small bits with the shredding machine and then heated, liquefied and pushed into a mold with the extrusion drill. The mold is then dipped into cool water and removed to reveal a new piece of plastic lumber, ready for its new plastic purpose in life.

The end result can be boarding, fencing, finishing pieces and really anything that is non-structural. Structural plastic lumber does exist, however there is a need to add other materials to strengthen it. The plan is to start with 1 x 5 x 8 decking, which is popular for docks around Bocas. The extrusion machine that is in the design will also be able to accommodate 8-foot boards of 4 x 4, 2 x 4 and 2 x 2 pieces. You can treat it just like wood, with drilling and cutting the pieces to fit your building needs.

According to Wright, the end product will not only compete with the strength and price of similar pieces of traditional wooden lumber, but it will also last longer, as it is water and insect resistant. Prolonged exposure to the sun is the only thing that will deteriorate it, which can be mitigated with paint and similar treatments. When it comes to building in Bocas, metal rusts, the salt air destroys concrete quickly and wood rots. Precious trees are being cut down illegally because of their desired durability, so plastic lumber can have its role in slowing down deforestation.

extrusion machine turning liquid plastic into a mold of plastic lumber

A rendering of an extrusion drill shooting the liquefied plastic into plastic lumber molds.

 

What types of plastic can be recycled?

Not all plastics are created equally. There are seven major types of plastic and most all products will indicate which number plastic it is somewhere on the packaging. Four of the seven classifications plastic will be able to recycled in the initial stage of the project:

#1 PET – plastic bottles (water, soda, most plastic beverage bottles)

#2 HDPE – plastic bottle lids, shampoo bottles, hard plastic chairs/tables

#4 LDPE – plastic bags, food packaging, bread bags

#5 PP – food containers (yogurt, ice cream, sour cream), bottle caps

Wright says that they will be accepting all kinds of plastics however, because they do want to find a practical use for 3, 4 and 7, even if it is just crushing them into crates and sending them to Panama City to be recycled. This is an option, and there are companies that will actually buy the plastic; it is only enough to cover the logistical costs of getting the plastic there, though according to Wright, it will be worthwhile to the Wasteless World project to keep it out of the landfills and ocean.

plastic recycling numbers and examples

The community will play a key role in participating in this process by rinsing and sorting the plastics, which they will be rewarded with a deposit payment when it’s all delivered properly. Wright recognizes that not everyone will bother with that, so there is going to be a need for volunteers or paid personnel dedicated to this task of cleaning and sorting as well. About the compensation for the community’s plastic recyclers, after running a lot of numbers, Wright is fairly confident that the operation will be able to pay between $0.30-$0.50 per kilo. He wants to pay people as much as possible, to incentivize the participation and help bring a new economic activity to the island. The plan is to be cautious in the beginning, setting the price lower and hoping to be able to increase it once they are confident that the sale of the lumber will be enough to cover the complete operation. Really, Wright wants to see the community take ownership of this project from start to finish:

“The end goal is to have this station set-up so that the community runs it, and then I can go off and do it somewhere else. That’s the first part of my life goal: to set up communities with a station to deal with their own plastic waste, however the way I see it, that’s just damage control. The other part of the solution is advocating for global policy change and adoption of responsible plastic usage. I hope to grow this project internationally so one day I can be in a position to influence people, corporations and governments to do the right thing.”

Wright has been on the seen, every Saturday, leading the charge, cleaning up and certainly “walking the walk.”

What is still needed to make this happen?

So far, on his own, Wright has been able to pay for a shredding machine and has his own funds lined up for other associated safety equipment. He has also worked diligently to establish a project plan, a business model, make important connections in the community, including the municipality and key like-minded individuals and organizations, and he has established his Wasteless World brand, the website and social media presence. He is almost there, but needs a financial push to get this project going.

He and other volunteers of Wasteless World are actively fundraising to cover the rest of the initial start-up fees. The goal of the fundraiser is to raise $8,500 U.S. dollars, which is about $11,500 Australian dollars, and that is the amount listed on the GoFundMe link. Since the campaign is related to Wright’s Australian bank account, the amount is shown in Australian dollars. It’s a bit of a confusing glitch, especially since some have thought they were donating $100 U.S. dollars, when really, they were donating $79 U.S. dollars (which is $100 Australian). If you’d like to donate $100 USD, you would need to fill in $126.28 Australian dollars on the Wasteless World GoFundMe site.

The fundraising is for the purchase of the big extrusion machine and also the associated fees to register Wasteless World as a legal entity. Wright doesn’t have enough money out of his own pocket to pay for the whole extrusion machine, so that is the main expense for which he is working to raise funds. With that extrusion machine, he is ready to start producing lumber, and of course he would also like to proceed operating as an official non-profit or as a corporation with a proper business license, with all the necessary permissions and taxes sorted in the eyes of the authorities.

an example of an extrusion machine for making plastic lumber

An example of an extrusion machine used for making plastic lumber, sold by American Cierra Equipment.

 

What can you do?

Donate, volunteer, collaborate and spread the word. Recycling is coming to Bocas del Toro and it has to be made a reality, one way or another, sooner or later. Attempts have been made in the past, and in my years of covering this news topic in Bocas del Toro, I feel that the only way it’s going to work is if there are a lot of people on board; multiple non-profits, government and more and more people pushing for it and putting their money and their time where their mouths are. Get behind this cause and ones like it. The Bocas Breeze has investigated it and is endorsing it.

Donate to the GoFundMe Campaign here.

Wasteless World has a campaign that is live until the end of February. At the time of this publication, just under a third of the funds have been raised. We know they will keep on pushing after this date, even if they don’t hit 100%. Help them get the machinery and legal fees they are lacking to get started up.

Participate in their Raffle Fundraising – The Rifa Raffle

Wright and the volunteers of Wasteless World are also promoting the “Rifa Raffle,” where prizes have been donated by local businesses. Raffle tickets are $2 each and winners will be announced on Instagram via the @waste_less_world account. Prizes have been graciously donated from Spanish by the Sea, Panama Dive School, Bocas Brewery, Almacen Toto, Licores Malamore, Bocas E-bikes, Fincas e Estancias, Black Cat, Bocas Surf Shop, Barco Hundido and other amazing and generous businesses of Bocas del Toro.

The original plan was to hold an event with the drawing of the raffle winners that will be filmed live at The Bocas Brewery on Saturday February, 27, however the Wasteless World team elected to postpone the event because of a recent outbreak of COVID-19 in the community. The event was originally scheduled to be limited to 40 people, which the Bocas Brewery venue has permission from the Ministry of Health for a capacity of 52 per the COVID-19 protocols. The rescheduled date is Saturday, March 13. Kudos to Wright and the Wasteless World team for doing the responsible thing with regards to public health concerns by limiting the attendence and postponing the event.

Get Involved with their Saturday Clean-ups and Other Volunteer Opportunities

On January 27, 2021, Wasteless World kicked off a Saturday tradition of getting together in a certain area of the archipelago and cleaning for three hours. So far, Las Cabanas, La Solucion and Carenero island have been targeted, with volunteers managing to round up 160 large bags of rubbish -mostly plastics- that have been cleared from the beaches, jungle and streets of Bocas del Toro. This is all great and everything, but it still ends up in a landfill. That’s why we need innovators and visionaries like Tom Wright to lead the charge into a future where those bits of garbage can become a part of something other than ending up in the mangroves, the bottom of the ocean floor, harming wildlife, entering the food chain or winding up in a landfill contributing to the contamination of soil and the water table. The acts of these clean-ups are more symbolic and that’s just fine, because that is the greatest need of all: awareness and education. We haven’t touched on that topic a lot in this article yet, however, it was a huge part of the interview and, in my opinion, the thing that is most important to Mr. Tom Wright himself.

Volunteers clean Carenero Island as part of a Wasteless World clean-up

Be a Part of the Environmental Education and Awareness

This article serves as an introduction to Tom Wright, his Wasteless World vision, the technical aspects of the solution he is proposing and even an endorsement to support his endeavors. Out of the “Five R’s” -which yes, there are now 5- this article speaks to the last R, recycle; the final stand in preventing waste. Though really in the interview we spoke at lengths about the importance of refusing packaging and products you don’t need, repairing what is broken before its thrown into the garbage, and of course the importance of reducing and reusing.

Wright wants to create a community-lead recycling workshop, yes, but his vision truly is a world without waste. Education will be the cornerstone of this project, not only to teach people to rinse and sort their plastics before bringing them to the recycling center, but to truly appreciate why this is all important and understand the real objective here. The end goal is not plastic lumber; it is a Wasteless World, and as the slogan goes: Together We Can!

“At the end of the day, the biggest threat to our environment and our future, is the belief that somebody else is going to do it.” – Tom Wright, Founder of Wasteless World

Tom Wright is giving the thumbs up as he poses with a bag of rubbish he picked up on Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama

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Nicholas Corea is the editor of the Bocas Breeze. He wasn't born in Bocas, but he got there as fast as he could. He is just one of the many foreigners who became enamored with the islands and his mission is to share the magic of Bocas del Toro with the world. Mr. Corea likes to extend his gratitude to everyone who makes the Bocas Breeze happen- starting with YOU (the reader).

2 Comments

  1. AvatarDoss Reply

    Wow, great article about how Bocas is fighting climate change and pollution head on. I hope this gets people excited about a circular economy and a more sustainable Panama!

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