Renewable Energy-Powered Wheel Traps Trash From a Panama River
A trash-collecting wheel is cleaning up pollution from the Juan Díaz River in Panama before it makes its way to the ocean. The wheel, named Wanda Díaz, is powered with hydraulic and solar power and also uses a camera system and artificial intelligence to analyze waste and provide data for public education and policy.
Marea Verde, a nonprofit group started in 2017, installed the water wheel system, which is the first of its kind in Latin America. The wheel is located in the Juan Díaz River, one of the most polluted rivers in Panama. According to project partner Clean Currents Coalition, the Juan Díaz River — along with six other important rivers in Panama — moves over 100,000 tons of trash into Panama Bay per year. Juan Díaz River is especially vulnerable to pollution because of its location through Panama City, poor waste management and extensive real estate development.
“Cleaning beaches is good, but it is more effective and cheaper to trap garbage in rivers because when it reaches the ocean, the environmental and economic cost becomes too high,” project leader Robert Getman said.
The water wheel is inspired by the Mr. Trash Wheel and Professor Trash Wheel projects in Baltimore, Maryland. It features a water wheel that moves with the river current, and solar panels offer backup energy.
“A floating boom spans the river to direct waste to the device, where it is then lifted out of the water by the wheel-powered conveyor and deposited into a container for appropriate waste disposal,” Clean Currents Coalition explained on its website. “Recyclables will be manually separated from the non-recyclables before reaching the container and carried to an on-shore sorting facility via a transverse conveyor.”
The Wanda Díaz device was established in September and has since collected over 22 1.3-cubic-meter bags of plastic bottles, as reported by Reuters. The device’s camera system has also collected images of the waste, analyzing and categorizing the data for educational use and to influence policies for waste management.
Although the Juan Díaz River is heavily polluted, it remains an important part of the mangrove ecosystem and leads out to the biodiverse Panama Bay, where nearly 1,000 humpback whales come to nurse their young each year.
Wanda Díaz is just one of the trash-collecting projects by Marea Verde. The nonprofit organization’s first project, B.O.B Litter Trap, was a floating barrier that trapped trash floating down the Matías Hernández River. In 1.5 years, the device kept over 100 tons of waste from reaching the ocean. According to the group, over 46.7% of the waste collected by B.O.B. was plastic bottles and disposable foam containers.
Although B.O.B. was uninstalled in 2020, Wanda Díaz is just getting started.
“We want to raise awareness that we can prevent the death of this very important river,” said Sandy Watemberg, head of Marea Verde, as reported by Reuters. The organization also hopes that Wanda Díaz and similar projects will convince consumers to rely less on single-use plastics.
“The most important thing is to achieve a change in habits,” Watemberg said.