[IQP] Composting: A new solution to Panama’s Waste Problem

Sponsor: City of Knowledge Foundation IMG_20151009_122408923
Student Team: Audrey Joan Allen
Arturo A. Cardoni
Erin E. Ferguson
Andrew W. Reyburn
Abstract: Worldwide disposal of organic waste in landfills creates many environmental and health problems. Landfilling organic waste contributes to global climate change and contamination of water sources. In Panama, increased waste production threatens local wildlife and human health because of ineffective waste disposal practices. Our project assisted La Fundaci´on Ciudad del Saber (FCdS) in laying the groundwork for a pilot composting program for food and vegetative waste that is technically feasible and culturally transformative. By collecting information through interviews, waste audits, and surveys, we discovered that La Ciudad del Saber (CdS) disposes of their waste at an unsanitary landfill, contributing to the endangerment of the environment and public health. We also determined the mass and volume of compostable waste produced at key locations at the CdS. To help the FCdS reduce their impact on the environment, we developed recommendations for a compost program with high levels of participation and efficiency.
Links: Final Report

Executive Summary

In developing countries, the rapid increase in waste production outpaces the development of adequate waste treatment programs, creating health and environmental hazards. Panama, a rapidly developing country, faces unique waste disposal challenges because of government corruption, inefficient collection, and a lack of social organization for environmental activism (Castro, private correspondence). As a result, almost all waste in Panama is left untreated. The only landfill in Panama, Cerro Patac´on, is an unsanitary landfill that pollutes the environment and threatens public health.

In Cerro Patacon, organic waste significantly contributes to the production of methane and leachate. Leachate is a toxic liquid produced from landfills that is known to contaminate groundwater resources. Even if preventative measures are taken to contain leachate in landfills, leachate will eventually leak into the environment (Raghab, Meguid, & Hegazi, 2013). Methane, a flammable greenhouse gas, contributes significantly to global climate change and landfill fires. Eliminating organic waste from landfills could reduce methane emissions by as much as 90% (H. G. Bringemer, 1987).

Composting presents one solution to eliminating organic waste in landfills (Hoornweg & Bhada-Tata, 2012). Composting is the process of recycling organic waste into a nutrient rich soil known as humus. This humus has the potential to remedy two environmental threats faced by Panama: soil erosion and agricultural runoff. No organization in Panama is better posed to test composting organic waste than La Fundacion Ciudad del Saber (FCdS), a nonprofit organization that helps lead environmental sustainability in Panama. The FCdS manages La Ciudad del Saber (CdS), a 120-hectare campus (nearly 300 acres) that rents space to companies, schools, and government organizations. The FCdS could set an example for the rest of Panama by implementing a large scale composting program for others to model.

Project Goal, Research Questions, and Methodology

The goal of this project was to assist La Ciudad del Saber in laying the groundwork for a pilot composting program that is technically feasible and culturally transformative. To accomplish this goal, we pursued the following research objectives:

  • Assess compostable waste disposal practices in place at La Ciudad del Saber
  • Estimate the mass, volume, and composition of food and paper waste produced at La Plaza restaurant complex and vegetative waste from the CdS campus
  • Investigate cultural obstacles that could affect the success of a pilot composting program at La Ciudad del Saber
  • Investigate stakeholder interests (the FCdS, La Plaza restaurant complex workers, and restaurant owners) and knowledge gaps related to a pilot composting program

To research these questions, we:

  • Interviewed representatives of the FCdS (La Fundaci´on Ciudad del Saber)
  • Interviewed representatives from the FCdS and companies that dispose of organic waste at the CdS
  • Toured the landfill Cerro Patac´on
  • Conducted a waste audit at the CdS
  • Surveyed Panamanians from the CdS and a local mall
  • Surveyed stakeholders such as restaurant owners at La Plaza restaurant complex


We examined the current waste disposal system at La Ciudad del Saber, estimated compostable waste production, and identified potential problems that could affect a successful composting program at the CdS. Our findings are summarized below.

Objective 1: Assess waste disposal practices at La Ciudad del Saber.

Finding 1: Organic waste from the entire CdS campus is disposed of at the landfill Cerro Patac´on, contributing to the landfill’s environmental pollution, which results in health hazards. Waste from the CdS is disposed at Cerro Patac´on, an unsanitary landfill (an unsealed landfill with little to no treatment facilities), which contaminates the surrounding environment. Organic waste disposed at Cerro Patac´on creates two main environmental pollutants that threaten public health: leachate and methane gas. Leachate contaminates water sources, and methane contributes to global climate change and landfill fires.

Finding 2: Multiworks and the AAUD are inconsistent when they pick up trash at the CdS campus and often leave uncollected waste across campus. Multiworks often leaves vegetative waste in bags across campus for days on end.The AAUD is unreliable and unsanitary in their collection of trash at the CdS. The AAUD often comes several days late for trash collection, resulting in trash bags piling up at disposal and collection sites. Uncollected waste not only creates an eyesore, but it also provides food, shelter, and breeding grounds for a variety of scavengers such as rodents and insects. These organisms can carry and spread disease (Hoornweg & Bhada-Tata, 2012 p. 6).

Objective 2: Estimate the amount of food waste produced at La Plaza restaurant complex and compostable vegetative waste produced at the CdS campus

Finding 3: The total mass and volume of compostable waste produced per week from Multiworks and at La Plaza restaurant complex are: 6.1 tonnes (43.2 m3) during rainy season, 8.2 tonnes (88.2 m3) during dry season, and 11.7 (64.2 m3) tonnes during mango season. These calculated totals of compostable waste produced at La Plaza restaurant complex and from Multiworks are a high estimate. The FCdS requested we provide a high estimate so they could handle waste fluctuations, and be prepared for the highest amount of waste that could reasonably be expected. Our data was derived from a variety of sources including our waste audit, interviews, and disposition receipts.

Finding 4: Compostable vegetative waste production and composition vary across each of the three seasons: dry season (18 tonnes per week), rainy season (11 tonnes/week), and mango season (17 tonnes per week). We compiled data from each of the three seasons: dry season (December to March), rainy season (April to November) and mango season (June to August). Our analysis showed significant differences in the amount and composition of compostable vegetative waste produced.

Finding 5: Most of the waste produced by La Plaza restaurant complex is compostable; this accounts for 95% of the mass, and 65% of the volume of the total waste produced at La Plaza restaurant complex. La Plaza restaurant complex represents the largest food waste source our audit discovered on the CdS campus. Almost all of the mass and more than half of the volume produced at La Plaza restaurant complex is compostable.

Finding 6: Most of the waste produced at the Metropolitan (MET) school is compostable; this accounts for 95% of the mass, and 70% of the volume of the total waste produced at the MET School. Because the Metropolitan School features a vegetable-heavy lunch program, they produce a greater volume percentage of food waste in their cafeteria than La Plaza restaurant complex.

Objective 3: Investigate potential cultural obstacles that could affect the success of the program.

Finding 7: While most Panamanians understand that Panama faces growing waste challenges, their limited knowledge of sustainable practices and cultural habits regarding waste disposal prevent them from separating their waste. Our survey results showed that approximately 1 in 10 Panamanians know what composting is. Our interviews with Dr. Castro, an environmental historian, and Sandra Icaza, a community and culture specialist, backed up our results. They explained that even though most Panamanians understand Panama faces a waste problem, this knowledge does not directly translate to action.

Objective 4: Identify stakeholder concerns and knowledge gaps

Finding 8: Most of the restaurant owners (80%) at La Plaza restaurant complex believed that separating their waste would not affect their business and all restaurant workers felt separating waste would not place a significant burden on their jobs. Interviews with five La Plaza restaurant complex restaurant owners and ten restaurant workers showed that most of them (four out of five) do not believe that separating their organic waste from regular waste on a daily basis would have any negative effects on their business. One owner even said that waste separation would actually be a positive practice to incorporate in their practices, stating that it would be “easier to take out the trash [in separate bags].”


  • To ensure high levels of participation, we recommend informing people who live and work at the CdS about the new composting system by implementing a poster campaign around campus, emailing residents and businesses, and posting information about composting on social media sites. Poster campaigns would be a simple, yet effective way to inform people about the composting program and the process of composting. Based on our research and surveys of people in La Plaza restaurant complex, posters should contain bolded titles and make good use of pictures.
  • To minimize the personnel needed to maintain the compost program, waste should be sorted when it is thrown away and the organic waste should be placed in a semi-automated composting system. Maintaining a compost system can be expensive because of labor cost. To minimize the burden on existing maintenance personnel, and avoid the need of hiring additional staff, the system should require minimal processing.
  • To be prepared for the maximum amount of waste, the FCdS should develop a system capable of storing and composting approximately 11.7 tonnes (88.2m3) of organic waste per week. The FCdS is currently interested in the Pila de Aireaci´on Mixta composting unit from EARTHGreen Colombia. This system is capable of handling this amount waste for 25-day compost cycles. We recommend the FCdS continue pursuing a semi-automated system like the Pila de Aireaci´on Mixta.
  • To minimize any negative impacts the compost heaps could have on those who work and live at the CdS, the compost system should not be located near highly populated areas. The FCdS has concerns about smell and the attraction of vermin. Although compost does not smell if processed correctly, it is easy to accidentally create smelly compost. To further mitigate these concerns, we recommend that all heaps be covered with a layer of sawdust or dirt. This prevents any possible odors from escaping and reduces the attraction of vermin.
  • To expand the composting program to include all CdS buildings, we recommend a gradual three phase rollout to ensure quality control and allow time to form partnerships. The composting program will first include food waste from La Plaza restaurant complex and vegetative waste from the entire campus. Once the programhas been well established, it can be easily expanded to include other entities on the CdS campus including residences, schools, and businesses.
  • To ensure a successful composting program at the CdS, we recommend future projects in the following areas: To continue the development and implementation of the FCdS’s pilot compost program, we recommend projects to perform a residential waste audit and develop a business plan for selling compost. To continue the exploration of Panama’s waste crisis, we also recommend a study of low-income communities most impacted by the trash problem and how composting could be a solution for these communities.