Launch Of ‘Trash Wheel’ In Panama Is A Milestone In The Global Fight To Stop Plastic Pollution

Along a dirty river, an ingenious garbage-swallowing machine and an inspired community offer hope to a world choking on floating plastic; in projects worldwide, nearly two million pounds of plastic trash have been collected and analyzed

Panama City (September 22, 2022) – A giant semiautonomous trash interceptor powered by flowing water and sunlight started eating plastic today on the Juan Díaz River in Panama City, Panama. It is the most ambitious attempt yet to rescue a long-contaminated waterway from the curse of being a floating landfill, and a step forward in a broader campaign to remove plastic from waterways in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and then analyze it so that the root source of the pollution can be addressed.

The machine, a “trash wheel” affectionately nicknamed Wanda Díaz, is a project of the environmental group Marea Verde, one of eight members of the Clean Currents Coalition, a worldwide effort to subdue the plague of ocean plastics, partly by capturing and removing plastics at their source—polluted rivers. The Clean Currents Coalition members are located in Panama, Mexico, Jamaica, Ecuador, Kenya, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

Worldwide, the Clean Currents Coalition projects have reached the following milestones:

  • 1,808,526 lbs (820,334 kg) of plastic waste captured from rivers and diverted from the ocean.
  • 78,466 people engaged in local communities through 335 outreach and educational events.
  • 82% of captured plastic recycled or repurposed:
    • 40% PET (soda and water bottles, shampoo bottles, etc.)
    • 23% HDPE (toys, food containers, trash bins, etc.)
    • 12% PP (containers, toys, car parts, etc.)

“There’s a living river under all that trash, or there could be,” said Douglas McCauley, Director of the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which advises the Clean Currents Coalition. “The waters of the Juan Díaz once nourished the local community, the nearby mangroves, and the Pacific Ocean. We’ll never restore rivers like this to health unless we can start to get the plastic out—and keep it out. And rescuing rivers from plastic is the key to rescuing the oceans.”

Trash wheels are relatively new inventions that use booms, conveyor belts, and solar panels to sweep floating plastic out of the water for repurposing, recycling or incineration. A similar machine, Mr. Trash Wheel in Baltimore, has been clearing tons of trash from that city’s Inner Harbor since 2014.

Panama’s Wanda Díaz is the last of the Clean Currents Coalition’s plastic capture devices to be launched. The Coalition is piloting other technologies besides trash wheels, including simple, low-cost systems such as booms, barriers, and traps and more complicated trash concentrators and harvesters. It is looking for what works best in different places, hoping to create a diverse array of options that can be replicated in other rivers and waterways around the world.

While the discussion around ending plastic pollution often focuses on the ocean, rivers are a critical piece of the puzzle. They wash up to 300 metric tons of plastic into the ocean every hour. While estimates can vary, as of 2015, up to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean each year. Plastic waste is much harder to recover once it disperses in the ocean; rivers, acting as a bottleneck, provide a better opportunity to turn off the tap of plastic—and trace it back to its source.

“Technological solutions can be highly effective, but they are just the beginning,” said Molly Morse, Senior Manager at the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory and Director of the Clean Currents Coalition. “The Coalition’s larger aim is to scale up — to use the collected data to change policies and infrastructure around the world, to galvanize society into finding ways to keep this nonbiodegradable pollution out of rivers and, ultimately, the ocean. This means engaging and educating local communities, investing in waste management infrastructure and repurposing removed plastic, and using data to influence policy and the private sector.”

“Devices like trash wheels are not magic bullets—they treat a symptom of the problem but are not themselves a cure,” said Douglas McCauley. “But they do, of course, remove tons of trash, while also giving communities a tangible, highly visible reminder about the problem of plastic waste. Beyond that, they generate data that can be used to spur changes in plastic production, use, and policy.”

About Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory
Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory (formerly Benioff Ocean Initiative), based at UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, merges science and technology to improve ocean health. The laboratory was brought to life in 2016 and expanded in 2022 through a $50 million gift from Marc and Lynne Benioff to promote science-based ocean problem solving at UC Santa Barbara. For more information about Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, please visit: https://bosl.ucsb.edu/.

For more information about the Clean Currents Coalition, please visit: https://cleancurrentscoalition.org/.

Clean Currents Coalition Projects
ASOCIACIÓN MAREA VERDE PANAMA: Rio Juan Diaz, Panama City, Panama
The Juan Diaz River is one of the most polluted rivers in Panama City and is part of the Panama Bay Wildlife Refuge and Ramsar Site. In its watershed lives an estimated population of more than 615,000 people in 15 boroughs. Through the Wanda Díaz project, Marea Verde seeks to conserve the protected area and influence the plastic waste management habits of the population, first in the basin and then throughout the country. In addition, the information derived from the use of Artificial Intelligence and image recognition for the characterization of the waste trapped by Wanda Díaz, will be used to propose public policies on the management of single-use plastics throughout the country.

WILDCOAST: Los Laureles Canyon, a tributary of the Tijuana River, Mexico
The Tijuana River Estuary acts as a filter for the Pacific and is a critical sanctuary for biodiversity—home to 29 species of fish, 29 species of reptiles and amphibians, 370 species of bird, and 10 endangered species. The Los Laureles Canyon trash boom, installed in 2020, has captured more than 45,000 kilograms of plastic waste to protect the estuary and determine how to address the root cause of plastic pollution in the area. With the many tires removed from the canyon, WILDCOAST has built riverside playgrounds for the children in the local community.

The Ocean Cleanup:
Kingston Harbour, Jamaica
Kingston Harbor is the seventh largest natural harbor in the world but is frequently clogged by solid waste running out of Kingston—threatening coral reefs across the Caribbean. Focused on cleaning up Kingston’s major drainage gullies, The Ocean Cleanup installed Interceptor Barriers™ in three gullies in 2021, with plans to scale up to ten gullies by 2023, to capture and sort plastics for recycling—at the same time gathering data about where the plastic comes from and how it can be stopped.

Ichthium:
Portoviejo River, Ecuador
Discharging directly into the Pacific just east of the Galapagos Islands, the Portoviejo River is a biodiversity hotspot and a major source of water for surrounding cities and communities. Ichthion’s Azure System™ has collected 1.102 kilograms of plastic waste since 2021—revitalizing the river’s ecosystem and minimizing the impacts of improper disposal, particularly in rural areas. Ichthion is developing an artificial intelligence (AI) system to autonomously collect data on the removed plastic and is planning the installation of a second plastic capture device on the Portoviejo River.

Smart Villages + Chemolex:
Athi River, Nairobi
The Athi River, stretching 390 kilometers across Kenya, is home to hippopotamus, crocodiles, and pythons, provides an essential source of drinking and irrigation water; and empties into the Indian Ocean—but it is under threat from plastic waste driven by rapid urbanization. The Smart Villages + Chemolex project is helping Kenya combat this threat and has captured more than 529,000 kilograms of plastic waste using ten trash booms since 2020. The Smart Villages + Chemolex team is repurposing the removed plastic to create strong and resilient paving blocks used in gardens and riverside beautification projects around Nairobi.

Ocean Conservancy: Red River, Viet Nam
The Red River in Vietnam supports life across 50 Vietnamese districts and is home to more than 23 million people at its delta—but it has been ranked as the fourth largest emitter of plastic waste globally. With one device installed in 2021 and the other in 2022, Ocean Conservancy and local partner MCD have captured 1.106 kilograms of plastic waste utilizing two traps to capture and sort waste, providing helpful insight into the types of polluting plastic.

TerraCycle Global Foundation: Lat Phrao Canal, Thailand
Based in the Chao Phraya River, known as the “River of Kings,” the Lat Phrao Canal is situated in a densely populated area of ​​Bangkok, Thailand. Since TerraCycle Global Foundation installed three trash traps in 2020, more than 158,000 kilograms of plastic have been captured as part of overall efforts to end plastic pollution, including the organization’s assisting dozens of local schools with implementing recycling programs.

Greeneration Foundation: Citarum River, Indonesia
The Citarum River in Indonesia supports the lives of more than 25 million people but is known as the “world’s most polluted river,” often so full of waste its surface isn’t visible. Greeneration Foundation, in partnership with RiverRecycle and Waste4Change, aims to not only reduce plastic waste in the river but also generate value from it and prevent further waste from reaching the river. Since installing their plastic capture device in 2022, the team has already collected more than 73,000 kilograms of plastic.

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