Panama Paved With Gold

Balboa and Panama beer cans discarded

Aluminum can recycling in Panama. With the first step I took in Panama I heard a crunch and felt the collapse of an aluminum can under my foot. With the second step I managed to miss a plastic bag with the remains of a polystyrene fast-food container, plastic forks and soggy napkins half inside. I looked around me – we had just driven an hour from the border with Costa Rica to reach Almirante, arriving at the docks where there’s a ferry across to the touristy town of Bocas. There was garbage strewn everywhere; more plastic bags, cans and random junk littering the long grass by the road and, close by the entrance of a boat yard, piles of black trash bags together with broken push chairs, umbrellas, bottles and engine oil containers. Almirante, our first real taste of Panama, was truly a mess.

We crossed to the Isla Colon and stayed just outside the town where the buildings by the sea give way to a proper beach. Just where there is another enormous pile of crap, bags of it, slowly disintegrating under the tropical sun. I couldn’t understand it – of course, I’m familiar with the less than perfect waste disposal and recycling systems that you find in some countries. But this was a gratuitous level of garbage in a nation that should be able to do better.

It was the aluminium that first broke my normally cool restraint: I don’t know, I couldn’t help it – the sight of so many cans just waiting to be picked up and converted into hard cash – the attempt to prove, at least to myself, that there was a point to tidying up a bit, that the cumulative effort of every individual moment of rubbish retrieval meant something – I started to collect every empty, metal beverage container that I could see, crushing them, adding them to a rapidly filling plastic sack. Beginning on the beach, it took me an hour to get a hundred of them.

Two hours worth of work

And then the next night there was a bit of a festival in town – everyone had sunk a few beers, the kids had had soda, and you could see the remains scattered all over the place – I started, almost automatically, going around picking up these small pieces of metal. Of course, people were staring at me, slightly bemused and confused but then a few began to come over and offer me their recently drained can personally, while older people would call me over to point out a few that they had seen hidden in the shadows. And on the slightly wobbly way home, I, Dunia, Melissa and Jackie managed to double my collection. It wasn’t a chore, it wasn’t hard work – it was fun; something, maybe, that echoed an instinct to be attracted to bright, shiny things, to an elemental metal… That crunching noise that I heard the first time I stepped out of the truck onto Panamanian soil; I sure heard it again and again that night.

So the next step was to weigh it all in at a scrap dealer. There wasn’t one in Bocas, that much was obvious – I googled what I could and found out about the sorry state of the recycling situation in Panama. Apparently there is no recycling in Panama. Apart from a few organizations that have put together a neighborhood scheme that seeks to educate and promote greener living, apart from a few charities that accept gifts of profitable waste and apart from crackheads and alcoholics doing their utmost, driven by necessity to earn their next fix and, I assume, happy to be able to combine this service to the environment with their own particular chemical passion; I couldn’t find anyone that might be interested in my sack of aluminium cans. And then after a few days of driving, crossing the continental divide and cruising the beautiful countryside of the Pacific lowlands, the PanAmerican highway heading towards the capital, we happened upon Chitre, a busy town close to the coast.

Weighing up the sack of cans

It had been a smooth journey –at first I had noted every discarded can hidden in the lush, green bushes as we sped along; each discarded item only briefly recalled to importance as I mentally counted them up, knowing that it would be foolish to stop and actually retrieve any one of them. Eventually the tropical heat and the excitement of exploring a new country had driven the whole aluminium story out of my head for a while. But suddenly, as were investigating the possibility that Chitre had a beach, we found instead the town’s landfill site and spotted a scrap dealer who’d had the foresight to hang a great big “Aluminio  – 30/lb” sign by the side of the road. We screeched to a halt and I gave the guy my sack of cans to weigh and pay us its worth. He didn’t seem phazed at all by these foreigners turning up with their horde of metal, in competition with the usual rag and bone types that came his way. To him, scrap was scrap, surely, and he lifted the bag with hardly a word and hung it on his scales. It was weighed at 11.5 lbs., paying me $4.11 at his 30 cents a pound price. I reckon, in British Columbia, say, with a 5 cent deposit on each can, I would have got $15. But, of course, I would never have been able to scavenge so much in just a couple of hours – put a deposit on the cans and everyone recycles, nothing is wastefully thrown away. But, clutching four bucks – enough to buy six cold, cold beers – I had proven, to myself, and now to you, that Panama is paved with gold…

During my short investigation into aluminium recycling I learnt some interesting stuff:

  • Aluminium is found naturally bound up with other chemicals everywhere in the world. It is the third most common element and the most common metal – 8% of the Earth’s solid crust is aluminium, although, until humans started throwing the stuff away, it is never found in a pure state.
  •  However, it is only extracted from bauxite, a mineral that is dug up from otherwise beautiful places in the world such as Suriname and Jamaica in a process that is pretty destructive to the immediate environment.
  • It takes a lot of energy to separate the aluminium from bauxite – 5% of all the electricity in the USA is used in its production – in comparison it takes only a fraction of this energy to recycle it.
  • Aluminium is one of the more profitable materials to recycle – it can easily pay the costs of recycling everything else normally thrown away by the average household.
  • It is very easy to recycle – simply melt the stuff down. It can take as little as six weeks from the moment you put a can in the recycling bin to the moment it reappears on the supermarket shelf.
  • It can be recycled over and over again – much of the aluminium ever produced is still being used.
  • Brazil manages to recycle nearly 90% of its aluminium
  • Aluminium is not very toxic. A hundred people would have to eat half a kilo of aluminium sulfate each for fifty of them to die. However, there are suggestions that regular exposure to pure aluminium can lead to various problems such as Alzheimer’s disease although studies have been inconclusive.

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