How Baltimore Inspired Panama

An idea for cleaning up rivers that was developed by a man in Baltimore, Maryland, is now at work in one of the most polluted rivers in Panama. It is yet another example of how small stories can offer inspiration far beyond the place where they started.

Baltimore’s Trash Wheel Family started with an idea sketched on a napkin by sailor and engineer John Kellett, who was disturbed by the garbage that flowed downriver after storms. He sketched plans for a machine powered by an old-fashioned water wheel that would catch the trash before it got into the harbour. He had no idea that it would spawn a social media family with a worldwide following or find a way to help Baltimore’s residents turn garbage into electrical power. 

Marea Verde, an environmental organization in Panama, decided to create their own trash-collecting wheel, modelled on the ones in Baltimore harbour. The wheel, Wanda Diaz, 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.

The water wheel, the first of its kind in Latin America, is set in the Juan Díaz River, one of the most polluted rivers in Panama. The wheel collects the vast amounts of waste produced in the capital Panama City with its metro population of around two million people. Tonnes of trash often flow into the ocean each year.

“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,” says project leader Robert Getman.

Wanda Diaz launched in late September in a river basin since drenched by heavy rains, which in turn propelled plastic bottles and containers into Wanda’s mechanical arms, and by mid-October, had collected 22 1.3 cubic meter bags of plastic bottles, Reuters reported.

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.

Over five years, Marea Verde projects have slowed the spread of trash across Panama’s rivers and coastlines. Between 2019 and 2020, the group rolled out its “Barrier or Trash” technology, a floating device that trapped over 100 tonnes of waste in the Matias Hernandez river. Almost half of the waste collected by B.O.B. was plastic bottles and disposable foam containers.


Renewable Energy-Powered Wheel Traps Trash From a Panama River. Eco-Watch, Nov. 1, 2022

Panama river cleaned up by trash-trapping wheel in a green first. Reuters, Nov. 1, 2022