ECO-WARRIORS: Some of the informal community garbage collectors being assisted by USAID grantee Project Zacchaeus in Puerto Princesa City.

Project Zacchaeus, a grantee of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is working to improve the trash collection system for informal waste collectors in Puerto Princesa in order to reduce their risk of acquiring infectious illnesses, heatstroke, and other health issues.

Project Zacchaeus founder John Vincent Gastanes said community waste collectors (CWCs), also known as “eco-warriors,” collect 3,000 recyclable plastic wastes each week from trash bins and other receptacles in neighborhood streets, exposing them to health risks because they are not wearing any safety gear.

Gastanes said they are profiling these waste pickers and want to develop a better garbage collection system for them to improve their lives.

“Ang focus kasi ng [USAID] ay improvement ng well-being ng informal waste collectors. When I say improve yong well being, part of this is either health. We provide proper gears and uniforms from the USAID, then second is capacity building,” he said.

“We [are] empowering them not to become employees, kasi kapag employee may threshold ka lang to reach. They are waste entrepreneurs, they collect garbage and they sell it so para silang negosyante. But this time, we’re creating more of them and then professionalize them to become entrepreneurial waste collectors,” Gastanes added.

According to Gastanes, the term “eco” was coined to symbolize and protect the environment, while the word “warrior” was coined to depict those on the frontlines who collect garbage from trash cans, which residents often forget to segregate.

He also called them as “true warriors” who clean the roadsides and excavate to recover recyclable waste materials.

It’s their job to keep the community clean and prevent plastics and other waste from polluting the island’s pristine waterways from entering the community, he explained.

“Kasi eco represent the environment and we want to protect them. Warriors, it’s like they are in the battle field. The things that they have to address like mga basura na hinuhukay nila sa mga basurahan natin na hindi natin nasesegregate so that’s make them a warrior,” Gastanes said.

“In a sense ‘di naman tayo lahat nag-clean up drive everyday, but these people are the ones who [are doing] the cleaning sa mga kalsada natin na napupuno ng basura, at naghuhukay just to get the recyclables. These people are true warriors that’s why I call them eco-warriors,” Gastanes said.

As part of the initiative, the eco-warriors are given leadership skills, tools, and other resources to help them improve their livelihood. Currently, Project Zacchaeus have 60 informal garbage collectors, which they are striving to professionalize.

“The collectors have been existing for many years, hindi lang natin masyado narerecognize. Ngayon lang nagkaroon ng intervention specifically sa mga nangangakal. Nagkataon lang this time somebody saw them and train them to become entrepreneural waste collector para ‘di sila nababarat ng mga junk shop, or naghuhukay lang to live and survive,” Gastanes said.

USAID is working to improve the economic competitiveness and resilience of cities beyond Metro Manila. The Cities Development Initiative (CDI) aims to promote the development of cities as agents of inclusive, sustainable, and resilient growth. USAID provides a spectrum of technical support based on the city’s most pressing needs, relying on resources in economic growth, health, energy, environment, governance, and education to help cities achieve resilience and inclusive growth.

The CDI is a key component of the Cooperation for Growth with Equity, a White House-initiated “whole-of-government” partnership between the U.S. Government and the Republic of the Philippines.