This Floating Grass Billboard Can Suck Pollution out of Filthy Rivers

Manila's Pasig River was declared biologically dead in the 1990s, but innovative efforts are bringing it back to life.

(Photo: John Chua/HANA)

Jun 3, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When it comes to methods of cleaning the world’s most polluted waterways, using grass probably isn’t the solution that immediately comes to mind. But an innovative partnership in the Philippines is using an 88.5-foot-long floating billboard made of vetiver to purify Manila’s insanely dirty Pasig River. The hopeful message it displays as it drifts on top of the water? "Clean River Soon."

Most people know of vetiver as the main ingredient in the classic Guerlain men’s cologne, but it turns out that the noninvasive grass, which is native to India, sprouts long, tough blades that easily mat together and have powerful cleaning abilities. Natural cosmetics company Shokubutsu Hana, the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, Vetiver Farms Philippines, and local advertising agency TBWA\SMP teamed up to create the billboard from the plant.

According to Shokubutsu Hana’s website, the grass traps debris and absorbs nitrates, phosphates, heavy metals like lead, and agricultural chemicals from water. The company has only committed to creating personal care products that don’t poison water when they’re washed down the drain. They decided to communicate that promise in a way that also makes a difference. According to the company, the vetiver grass billboard that is stationed in the Pasig can clean up to eight thousand gallons of water per day.

Before World War II, the mansions of wealthy Manila residents lined much of the Pasig’s banks. But in the postwar era, as was the case in many cities around the globe, the rich moved to the suburbs, and in Manila squatters and factories took their place. Decades of industrial pollution and raw sewage being dumped into the river led to it being declared biologically dead in the 1990s. Still, efforts to restore the waterway only began in earnest in 2010.

Although many of those squatters are still living in the numerous shantytowns along the river, the Shokubutsu Hana website says the billboard is a reminder to the public to stop throwing garbage in the city’s waterway. Of course, this idea, along with the billboard in Peru that eats smog and the building-size poem in the U.K. that does the same, wouldn’t be needed if people didn’t pollute in the first place. But, until that environmental nirvana comes, it’s nice to see this water billboard doing its part.