PHOTO ESSAY: Cleaning Up Bangkok’s Canals

Yesterday I was invited to take some photographs for TerraCycle Thai Foundation, an environmental NGO dedicated to cleaning up Bangkok’s picturesque but all too often dirty and garbage-infested waterways. With up to 80% of the trash found in the Gulf of Thailand believed to originate in the city’s canals, clearing the garbage at source – and educating local communities about garbage disposal – is a highly effective way of limiting ocean pollution and ensuring a healthier living environment for some of the city’s poorest communities, as well as developing the city’s numerous canals as leisure and tourism assets.

I spent the morning with TerraCycle’s canal cleanup team, joining them on their boat as they fished bottles, cans and cuddly toys out of Lad Phrao canal and emptied the river trap, which collects waste in one place as it flows down the canal, and watching as they weighed and sorted the garbage they collected. Most of it is recycled; the stuff that can’t be recycled is compacted and then sent off to be converted into fuel. The aim is to recycle literally everything that comes out of the canal, and with the Lad Phrao trial proving a success so far, funding is now being sought to roll the project out to ten more locations in the city.

Here’s the story of my morning with the TerraCycle heroes…

Bangkok’s canals may be picturesque but they are also home to some of the city’s poorest residents, many living in basic shacks with no sanitation & no waste disposal facilities or collections. As well as TerraCycle’s cleaning project, the city is also building new affordable homes for residents to improve their living conditions and make the areas more hygienic.

The cleanup team go out every day, five days a week, and are a recognisable sight on the canal with their bright blue boat and uniforms. All are from the local community, and whilst the work is hot, dirty and smelly, for many of them it’s the first stable employment they have had in years and enables them to support their families.

TerraCycle have installed a series of traps at regular intervals along the canal, which stop waste as it floats downstream and store it in metal cages, which are emptied every day by the cleanup team. As the canals are in regular use by boats they cannot cover their entire width, but the traps still do a good job of trapping large amounts of waste.

Up to 2500kg of garbage per day is collected from the canal, and then brought back to TerraCycle’s base for sorting – the dirtiest job of the lot. Any waste that cannot be recycled is fed into a trash compactor.

The sorting yard is home to an incredible range of garbage, from the usual plastic waste, food cans and beer bottles, to the likes of cuddly toys, clothes, motorbike helmets, mattresses, fridges, aircon units and more. TerraCycle’s outreach team have even managed to get funding from some companies after showing them just how much waste their products create.

Whilst TerraCycle is an international NGO, its public face and hero is very much local. Khun Sam has lived on Lad Phrao’s canal all his life and following his retirement, he devoted himself to singlehandedly cleaning it up, making him an obvious choice for team leader when the project began.

You can find out more about TerraCycle Thai Foundation at