• Manila's notorious Pasig River is one of the world's most polluted rivers.
  • Filipinos come together everyday raking out rubbish, trying to clear the waterway.
  • These "river warriors" are a decade-old group of about 100 people, who began as volunteers but now receive a basic income from a local government.
  • The 27km river cuts through the Philippine capital and was once a vital trade route.
  • Urbanisation and poor sewage planning have left the river highly polluted.

Each morning, a group of Filipinos rakes up piles of trash on the banks of one of the world's most polluted rivers, filling sacks in an endless pursuit to clean a waterway that is also a major source of ocean plastics.

These "river warriors" are a decade-old group of about 100 people who work to clear the glut of garbage floating or washed up along Manila's notorious Pasig River.

The 27 km (16.8 mile) river cutting through the Philippine capital was once a vital trade route. But urbanisation and poor sewage planning have left the river all but dead.

"There's never a time without garbage here. It's unlimited," said Angelita Imperio, a river warrior for six years.

The warriors wear rubber boots and elbow-length gloves, using rakes and handmade tools to scoop rubbish from stagnant waters in different locations.

The warriors started off as volunteers but now receive a basic income from a local government and operate in small groups at different parts of the river.

Dexter Opiana, another river warrior with six years of service, says she and about 19 others work shifts of about seven hours and collect an average of 80 to 100 sacks a day, more during monsoon season.

Most of it is plastic wrappers, single-use sachets, and packaging materials. Since the pandemic began, surgical face masks are sometimes mixed in among the other floating garbage.

Pasig's trash isn't just a Philippine problem.

A 2021 report by Oxford University's Our World in Data estimated 81% of global ocean plastic comes from Asian rivers and the Philippines alone contributes a third of that total.

The Pasig River alone provides up to 6.43% of ocean plastic originating from rivers, the report said.

A man gathers trash from the heavily polluted San Juan River, a tributary of Pasig River in Mandaluyong City, Philippines,
The warriors started off as volunteers but now receive a basic income from a local government.
Image: REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

Despite the warriors' Sisyphean task, they are optimistic of better days ahead.

"This has been our advocacy, to have the river cleaned for the sake of our children, our parents, our nation and mother nature," Imperio said.

Plastic

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

Joan Lagunda, assistant secretary at the environment department, said authorities were coordinating with local governments to establish proper waste segregation practices and want informal settlers on the riverbanks to be moved.

Marian Ledesma, a campaigner with Greenpeace Philippines, said the government should reduce single-use plastics and strengthen law enforcement on waste disposal and sewage.

"I've seen it done in other cities, in other countries, so I don't think it's impossible to revive and clean up Pasig River," she said.

"It will need a collective action."